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CPS Principals Have A Plan To Save Chicago Schools — But They Need Help

By Ariel Cheung | May 24, 2016 6:33am
 Chicago principals presented plans to save CPS schools during a forum Monday.
North Side Schools Push For Better Funding For CPS
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LAKEVIEW — Painting grim portraits of schools without arts or physical education, five Chicago principals described the "demoralizing" effect proposed state funding cuts would have during a forum Monday.

Chicago Public Schools is facing "doomsday" budget cuts, educators warned last week.

If the state Legislature doesn't pass a budget before May 31, Chicago schools would be forced to cut at least 26 percent from their 2016-17 budgets, said James Gray, principal of Hamilton Elementary School.

Ariel Cheung talks about the Principals' plan to save CPS schools.

"Even if we get this solved, there are ripples that will happen," Gray said. Chicago teachers are flocking to jobs outside the city, "and the longer we wait, the bigger ripples and the more talented educators will leave CPS and leave the state, as well," he said.

The principals — also from Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, Agassiz Elementary School, Mayer Elementary School and Lake View High School — called on parents to pressure legislators to support education funding reform.

RELATED: Fearing 'Doomsday' Cuts, North Side Principals Rally For Equitable Funding

The proposed $935 million deficit for CPS "would threaten every aspect of a school's operation and jeopardize critical staffing and programs" for students, said Mira Weber, principal of Agassiz.

Billy, 11, looks over the shoulder of his mother, Mary Ann Merikoski, as she emails legislators concerning changes to state education funding proposed during a principal forum Monday. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

The principals shared gloomy prospects of how cutting a quarter of a school's budget impacts students, which Weber said would "demoralize the state and city we currently live in and know."

Elementary schools would likely sacrifice sports, fine arts, library and music. Classes would combine multiple grade levels and almost double in size to about 40 students.

The impact would further crush schools in high-poverty neighborhoods — those typically outside the reach of parents with the ability to fundraise and stave off losses, Weber said.

"This would create even more inequity in our state," she said, "Because people who could afford it may be able to offset the loss of music or sports, but families who can't afford it would not."

CPS Principals Scott Grens, (from left) Mira Weber, Katie Konieczny, Nate Pietrini and James Gray speak at a forum focused on changing how Illinois funds its school districts. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

At the high school level, "there's not a whole lot of room to wiggle" within a budget, said Lake View High School Principal Scott Grens. Some high schools dedicate as much as 90 percent of their budgets to salaries and benefits, making steep staffing cuts unavoidable.

RELATED: Lane Tech $8.5M Budget Cut Jeopardizes Textbooks, AP Classes: Principal

But the principals came equipped with a plan, asking for compromise from state and city legislators, CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union to solve the budget crisis and fill the $935 million hole in the CPS budget.

"This is not a number you can negotiate to or cut your way into — and certainly not in a way that is stable year after year," Hawthorne Principal Nate Pietrini said.

Along with meeting Monday, Pietrini and Gray wrote an editorial outlining their plan to fix CPS. Its main points include: 

• Passing legislation that would change the way the state distributes money to districts across Illinois.

• Creating or increasing taxes on consumer service, retirement income and state income taxes.

• Dedicating an increase in city property taxes to pension payments and allotting a consistent amount of tax-increment funding to CPS.

• Freezing central office staffing and new school openings, while making central office staff and school administrators 50-week employees.

• Asking the 30,000 educators for a 1 percent increase to their pension contributions.

Close to 200 parents, teachers and supporters turned out for Monday's forum at Agassiz Elementary School, 2851 N. Seminary Ave. The principals asked each to petition legislators and spread the word about the district's dire situation.

Teachers raise their hands in support over equitable state funding for Chicago Public Schools during a forum at Agassiz Elementary School. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

While the principals stressed that they don't speak for CPS as a whole, "there should be no discussion that's off the table" when it comes to the well being of students, Pietrini said.

Unlike the current per-pupil formula the state uses to divvy up education money, the pending legislation would drive more state dollars to students with heightened needs.

"It takes more dollars to educate a child who has lived through violence or poverty — it just does," Pietrini said.

The bill also allows for some pension relief for Chicago, ending its status as the only district in Illinois that doesn't receive state funding for pensions.

Members of the North Side school community gathered at Agassiz Elementary School to email politicians and write letters pushing for changes to state education funding. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

But if a state budget doesn't pass by May 31, the Legislature would have to approve it a with three-fifths majority, versus the simple majority it needs before that.

And unlike last year, the state seems unwilling to slip through a spending bill that would keep money flowing to schools, subjecting them instead to the same peril that social services and public universities like Chicago State faced this year.

"You can see why there's a lot of activity ramping up around the May 31 deadline," Pietrini said.


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