GRAND BOULEVARD — Chicago Public Schools released school budgets to principals Wednesday that try to minimize cuts.
Thanks to a six-month stopgap budget passed in Springfield, property tax hikes and cuts to the administrative ranks, CPS has been able to hold the line of per-pupil funding for public schools at last year’s levels.
“Just a few weeks ago, CPS faced the real prospect of unavoidable, devastating cuts. Thankfully, those cuts are off the table,” said CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. “We will continue to tighten our belts, but thanks to the collaborative efforts of State leaders and Chicagoans that significantly reduced the district’s budget deficit, our schools will open this fall with the resources to continue their remarkable academic progress.”
Principals were expected to get budgets that kept per-pupil spending at $4,087 or $1 less than last year’s budgets.
The budgets will keep in place schools spending at the end of this year, which takes into account an early round of cuts in February.
Megan Thole, principal at Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park, said she would have to continue holding off on hiring a fourth recess monitor and the school will continue holding off on renewing some of its subscriptions for educational software.
Claypool said he was confident CPS would produce a balanced budget by the end of August, when it must be approved by the Chicago Board of Education.
Through several legislative actions by state lawmakers, CPS was able to close a $600 million gap in its budget, according to CPS.
But there is still a $300 million budget deficit that Claypool said was still being worked on. He said some of it would be relieved through combining all of district's purchasing to try to levy some savings from suppliers. He said he was unsure how much of the hole that would close or what other options remain available.
"We are not going to be relying on borrowing to get through the year," Claypool said.
He said the goal of a balanced budget is partially to reassure CPS' lenders and to get access to markets again after being shut out part of last year over the district's worsening credit rating. He said the district will need to borrow to pay for capital projects like repairs to schools and other infrastructure.
Claypool said he is still set on teachers getting a "healthy raise" over the term of the next contract, but said the Chicago Teachers Union "needs to step up" on other issues like contributions to the teachers' pension fund.
Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the union, said that the budget still lacks details on where the "efficiencies" necessary to close the budget hole would come from and how the district will chart a path to long-term financial stability.
“CPS states it’s faced an ‘agonizing’ choice, although the choice is actually a legal requirement resulting from its own fiscal irresponsibility and unwillingness to raise revenue on those who can afford it," Sharkey said. "The real choice is the one that the CTU has posed repeatedly — choosing to raise revenue from the wealthy to make our schools whole and move towards the schools Chicago’s students deserve, and not cede to the status quo of relegating urban public education to under-funding and worsening segregation."
During months of negotiations to get more funding from the state, CPS told teachers and principals to expect the worst and plan for cuts of up to 26 percent to school budgets, larger class sizes, program cuts and more layoffs.
The district has been able to put off some of that pain for at least the short term through cuts last year that eliminated 400 administrative positions, requiring furlough days for all employees and bumping up the amount non-union staff must contribute for their health care coverage.
“The past school year provided unique challenges to our school community, but today’s budgets should provide relief and stability to our families and educators looking to the year ahead,” said CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson. “While we have work ahead of us, thanks to the deep commitment by our teachers, parents and the entire CPS community, the school year will start as scheduled and students will receive the resources and critical instruction time that they need to be successful.”
The final budget is required by state law to be approved by the board of education by Aug. 31, giving CPS administrators seven weeks to close the $300 million budget hole.
Claypool said he expected to have a solution to the outstanding financing gap in the next three weeks.