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CPS Budget Obscures Millions In Cuts: 'It Is The Twilight Zone'

 A change in the way Chicago Public Schools fund special education services left parents confused about whether programs and teachers would be cut at their schools.
A change in the way Chicago Public Schools fund special education services left parents confused about whether programs and teachers would be cut at their schools.
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CHICAGO — The school-by-school budget breakdown released by Chicago Public Schools officials last week obscures millions of dollars in cuts to schools across the city, a DNAinfo Chicago analysis found.

While Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool told reporters Wednesday that school budgets would "hold the line" and protect classrooms from another round of cuts, schools will get approximately 7 percent less this year for each student in kindergarten through 12th grade as compared with last year, officials acknowledge.

Local school leaders say cuts to programs are inevitable and class sizes will be forced to grow across the city.

One reason: individual schools will now have to carry the costs of special education in their budgets, a departure from past practice where CPS' central office picked up those expenses.

When CPS officials released budgets for each school Thursday, it appeared many schools would actually have more money this year than last year, confusing parents, Local School Council members and principals alike.

The across-the-board cuts were obscured by the change in the way CPS funds special education services for nearly 50,000 students throughout the city, principals, Local School Councils and members of parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand said.

Funds earmarked for special education teachers, aides and programs have not been reduced this year, according to a statement from district officials. But transferring that money to school local budgets from CPS central administration clouds the total picture of funding.

One example can be seen in the budget for Taft High School on the Far Northwest Side. The Norwood Park school appears to be gaining $1.6 million during the 2016-17 school year as compared with the 2015-16 school year, according to the school-by-school breakdown released by CPS officials.

But the school's budget of approximately $22.5 million includes $3.5 million for special education services, teachers and aides that was not part of its budget last year, Principal Mark Grishaber said.

In reality, the school will lose approximately $500,000, forcing Grishaber to increase class sizes, hike student fees and put off planned renovations of locker rooms.

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A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel would not answer whether the school-by-school breakdown was designed to obscure cuts to schools. Claypool said Wednesday that classrooms would not be impacted after a budget deal approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Bruce Rauner included an additional $600 million for CPS. 

City Hall referred questions to CPS officials, who also did not address whether the school-by-school breakdown purposely obscured the cuts.

The district still must fill a $300 million budget hole by the end of August, when the board of education is required to adopt a balanced budget.

Wendy Katten, the co-founder of Raise Your Hand, said the misleading school budgets gave parents a "false sense of security."

"It is the twilight zone," Katten said. "They would rather have a positive [public relations] story rather than have a real conversation with stakeholders and solve real problems."

CPS officials based their claim that budgets "held the line" on per pupil spending on the fact that the amount is just $1 less than the amount schools received last year after an unprecedented round of mid-year budget cuts announced in February.

Many principals bridged those cuts with money they saved in reserve funds that are now depleted, giving them no choice but to slash programs, increase class sizes or hike student fees.

"The pattern seems to be to threaten massive cuts and then implement significant cuts that will nonetheless impact the classroom," Katten said.

RELATED: CPS School Budgets: Here's What Every School Is Getting This Year

Principals and Local School Councils are scrambling to submit budgets to district officials by Friday in light of the changes that require schools to pay for special education services directly, with principals given a budget to meet the requirements of each student's specialized plan as required by state law.

The change was implemented because it is "better for schools and students," according to a statement from district officials.

Giving funds earmarked for special education services directly to schools will give principals the opportunity to allocate those funds first and ensure those students aren't "scheduled as an afterthought," according to the district statement.

Before this year, special education teachers, aides and programs were paid directly by the district's central office and that amount was not included in each school's budget.

The change makes it impossible to accurately compare school budgets from 2015-16 to 2016-17, DNAinfo's analysis found.

District officials did not respond to a request from DNAinfo Chicago to release each school's special education budget in order to detail the differences between 2015-16 and 2016-17 school budgets.

Taft is better off than other schools, because its enrollment is projected to drop by only four students, meaning the school's largest source of funding will be unchanged. The school is expected to remain the most crowded public high school in Chicago.

However, the situation at other schools projected to lose a significant number of students is much worse than it initially appeared.

For example, district officials expect Schurz High School, which serves students in Portage Park and Old Irving Park, to lose 216 students, leaving it with more than 700 empty seats. That will translate into a $2 million budget cut, Interim Principal Kate Valente told parents and students in an email.

However, the data released by CPS officials told parents to expect only a $1 million cut — because of the addition of funds earmarked for special education teachers, aides and programs.

"Some transparency and honesty would make an already tough situation better," Katten said. "But that's not what we are dealing with here."

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