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What Will Happen If Schools Close June 1? Here's What We Know — And Don't

By  Heather Cherone and Patty Wetli | April 25, 2017 6:06am | Updated on April 26, 2017 11:51am

 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 — Parents across the city are holding their breath with Chicago Public Schools on the brink of closing 20 days early unless officials find a way to bridge a massive budget gap.

A Cook County judge is expected to decide Friday whether Illinois' school funding formula violates the civil rights of Chicago students by providing more money to schools outside the city. A ruling in favor of CPS' argument would force the state to cough up money for the cash-strapped district.

Check out this handy Q & A, which answers questions about how CPS got to this point and what happens next.

When will we know what the last day of school will be?

In March, lawyers for CPS told Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama that they needed to tell parents when the last day would be no later than May 1 to allow them to make arrangements. Valderrama said he will rule on the schools' lawsuit against the state Friday. Coincidentally, former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is expected to be sentenced that same day after being convicted of taking kickbacks for steering a CPS principal development contract to friends of hers.

Will students still be allowed to graduate or move on to the next grade?

Even if school ends 20 calendar days — 13 instructional days — early, schools officials said no one will be held back from moving on to the next grade or from receiving their diploma.

What about graduation ceremonies? And proms? And awards luncheons?

According to the Chicago Public Schools calendar, high school graduations cannot take place before June 10 and elementary school graduations can't take place before June 15. Whitney Young Magnet High School Principal Joyce Kenner said that while she is beginning to make contingency plans, graduation and prom for her students will go forward as planned.

"The dates are non-negotiable and have been planned a year or two in advance," Kenner said, a statement echoed by Amundsen High School Principal Anna Pavichevich.

The big question is who would staff those events. Teachers often chaperone dances such as prom and assist with events like graduation, and while they typically do so in their free time, many may view this year's circumstances differently.

What most certainly would be lost if schools close early would be the ability for teachers and students to end the school year as planned — not only by celebrating accomplishments but also by getting closure on the year.

At Hamilton elementary in Lakeview, Principal James Gray said he would reschedule graduation for May 29 and hold a brief ceremony.

"I know many grandparents fly in for the ceremony in June, so they would be out of luck," Gray said.

What about final exams?

That is an open question and depends on how much notice CPS officials give before the end of school, several principals said.

"I am operating this way — when they tell me, I'll make a Plan B," Pavichevich said. "I do not want to invest mental energy on a scenario I don't know is going to happen. My teachers and I will have a plan, and we will be fine. I absolutely have faith in my staff.  We will pull together."

Kenner said if the school year ends early, teachers wouldn't be expected to cram June's instruction into May.

While noting that "one hour of knowledge lost is significant," Kenner added, "We'll do as much as we can to impart that knowledge in another manner," including perhaps assigning summer reading.

The schedule for standardized testing could also be affected, since some schools schedule those tests in June.

An early end to the school year could send schools scrambling to collect textbooks from students — at $70 to $80 a pop, administrators can't afford to replace them.

Wait — don't students have to be in school a minimum number of days during the school year?

Yes, they do. If the school year does end June 1, CPS would be nine days short of meeting the minimum number of days required by state law, according to calculations by the Illinois State Board of Education and CPS officials. That means CPS would lose $58.5 million in state aid during the 2017-18 school year, officials said. CPS officials say they already have accounted for that hit.

What am I supposed to do with my kids if they aren't in school?

That's a good question. Representatives of the Chicago Public Library did not respond to questions from DNAinfo about contingency planning, and a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District, which many families rely on for summer camps, referred questions to CPS officials.

Some neighborhood organizations already have said they will offer day care.

In the fall, when it looked like teachers would go on strike, CPS officials put aside $15 million and said all school buildings would stay open for those students who had nowhere else to go.

Schools officials have not announced similar contingency plans in the event that the school year ends early.

"It's a big distraction for teachers and parents," said Gray, who is stepping down as Hamilton principal after this school year. "Our families would have to scramble to find child care."

One parent, posting on the Facebook page of the advocacy group Raise Your Hand, said his ad hoc day care plan would consist of bringing his children to Gov. Bruce Rauner's office one day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's the next, followed by the office of Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan — and repeating.

Won't teachers suffer a huge pay cut if school is not in session?

Yes, the average teacher will lose about 10 percent of his or her annual pay if school ends June 1.

How will the Chicago Teachers Union respond?

That's another big unknown. After state labor officials shot down teacher's initial plans to walk out of class on May 1, union President Karen Lewis said that any more furloughs — teachers have already had four days cut from their paychecks — would result in an immediate call for an emergency meeting to consider a strike. Any walkout requires a vote of the union's membership.

That means a decision to end school early could prompt a walkout by teachers, and an even earlier end to the school year.

How did things get to this point?

The fiscal crisis for Chicago Public Schools began in November, when Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would have given CPS $215 million to help cover CPS' pension obligations.

Rauner blamed Illinois Senate President John Cullerton for violating a compromise signed in June that allowed schools to open in September. Part of that deal promised more money for CPS in return for statewide "pension reform," a long-held goal of the governor.

But Rauner contends there was no reform and in a message to legislators in December, he said he refused to sign a school-funding bill because it would amount to a "bailout" for CPS.

Cullerton denied breaking the agreement and said he was willing to continue working on pension reform with the governor.

"This is not a political game, I don't have time for that — there's too much at stake," Kenner said. "This is not a chess match. We're talking about the lives of students. I want to have faith in our governor and the Board of Education to do the right thing. Adults need to do the right thing by our children."

Since then, an effort to reach a so-called "grand bargain" and approve the state's first budget in two years while changing the way the state pays for employee pensions has fallen apart, leaving Chicago schools with a massive budget gap.

Can't CPS just cut more from its budget? Or borrow money to make ends meet?

CPS must pay its employees' pension fund $721 million by June 30.

Even with more money from the state — or city — CPS will "have to borrow hundreds of millions" to pay that bill, officials said.

In January, Claypool ordered four unpaid furlough days for all CPS employees to save $35 million. He also canceled professional development events for CPS central office staff to save $5 million and slashed charter school budgets by $15 million by the end of the year, officials said.

In February, Claypool cut another $31 million by freezing a portion of schools' discretionary funds, which can be used to buy textbooks and technology and pay for after-school programs, field trips and hourly staff.

Those cuts have whittled the deficit to $129 million, officials said.

CPS would save $91 million by ending school June 1 instead of June 20 and save another $5 million by canceling summer school for all students except those in high school, according to its court filing.

Other cuts aren't possible, Claypool said.

What about the city? If the state can't or won't help, shouldn't the city step in?

Several aldermen tried to do just that on Tuesday, but their plan to use city redevelopment funds to keep the lights on failed to advance. That plan has been endorsed by both Rauner and Lewis.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposes that effort, saying Chicago taxpayers have already paid more than their fair share for the city's schools.

WTTW-Channel 11 has reported that Emanuel's administration has quietly begun developing a contingency fund if the CPS lawsuit is unsuccessful, which could include tapping the city's emergency or "rainy-day" funds.

The education team at WBEZ took a look at other financial options CPS has to keep itself solvent.

Will Emanuel really let schools close early on his watch? What about the longer school day?

Emanuel hasn't said whether he plans to run for a third term as mayor, but everyone at City Hall expects him to run for re-election.

Ending the school year early would roll back his much-touted efforts to lengthen the school year. In 2012, his push to extend it by 10 days helped trigger a seven-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, along with a host of other issues.