Pink slips for Central Office, reorganization on way

Photo by Max Herman

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool announced long-anticipated layoffs of Central Office staff on Friday. More than 200 staffers were laid off and 180 vacancies were eliminated.

Chicago Public Schools announced 227 Central Office layoffs today, including dozens of special education and early education employees.

In addition, 180 vacancies in Central Office were also eliminated. While classroom teachers are not included in this round of cuts, some advocates and educators worry about the impact inside of schools as staff and principals will be forced to take on additional responsibilities.

Sources tell Catalyst that more changes are still to come. Department and network chiefs have been told to expect details on a reorganization of the school district in the coming days, although the actual restructuring may not take place until this summer.

The job cuts and reorganization have been underway for months, as the district grapples with a $480 million mid-year budget gap.

CPS records show that in October, CEO Forrest Claypool brought in outsiders — including some who are politically connected — to help with the restructuring.

These include Carol Rubin, who once worked with Claypool at the Chicago Transit Authority. She is being paid $65,000 to “review existing organizational charts to determine opportunities [to] restructure and streamline non-core education departments.” Paul Toback, a former executive at Bally Total Fitness and one-time administrator under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, is being paid $75,000 to “recommend and provide additional innovative ways to deliver services.”

Another contract for $72,500 went to a company that’s part of a private equity firm run by Stuart Taylor II to assess the district’s diverse learners program. Messages left for Rubin, Toback and Taylor on Friday afternoon were not immediately returned.

The consultants appear to be part of a larger effort to “assist management in executing internal audit, financial, administrative, operational, and educational priorities,” according to an October briefing to the Board of Education.

The same month, the School Board agreed to spend an estimated $1 million for organization management consulting.

CPS officials who were asked for input in the reorganization process described the review as “comprehensive” and “thoughtful,” compared to past administrative layoffs and reorganizations.

A district spokeswoman did not immediately confirm that a reorganization is on its way or discuss the consultants. But the statement from CPS indicates that the department that oversees special education, the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, will be overhauled to place a greater “focus on schools.”

At the moment it does not appear that CPS will, as some have speculated, eliminate its network system — although it may be restructured over the summer. Back in October, when CPS announced it would close a few dozen vacancies in Central Office, the district said it planned to shift responsibilities that had previously been handled downtown to network staff and schools.

Not ‘useless bureaucrats’

The Central Office layoffs were not unexpected. Claypool said in December that about one-third of Central Office positions would get cut before the start of the second semester. In total, CPS says it has eliminated just under a quarter of the district’s Central Office and citywide administrative positions since last summer.

In the statement, Claypool acknowledged that the cuts were “painful” but stressed that they were kept away from the classrooms. Jobs were targeted that “don’t support the immediate day-to-day operations of schools,” he said.

But advocates who work with children with special needs assured that the cuts didn’t impact “faceless, useless bureaucrats.” Several dozen employees — known as specialized services administrators, or SSAs — who work inside network offices and help schools fulfill students’ individualized educational programs (IEPs) lost their jobs today, sources said.

Rod Estvan, of Access Living, says that these employees are “critical” to helping schools deliver services to students with special needs. They’re brought in when families ask for more resources for their children or if they want to transfer to another school, he said.

“They have nothing in place right now to replace the functioning role of those folks,” Estvan says. SSAs “have more schools than they can effectively handle now, except as operating as firemen and women … A cut here is going to slow this process down.”

One principal who asked not to be identified says the network SSA assigned to her school “was coming into classrooms to observe our special education teachers, reviewing IEPs to make sure they were in order.”

Apart from the dozens of special education cuts, a spreadsheet released late Friday* also shows substantial layoffs in Information and Technology, Early Childhood Development and the Law Office.

Principals say they rely on help from IT specialists downtown for managing and accessing school-level data, and are worried about the impact of those layoffs on their schools.

Also laid off were a number of “instructional effectiveness specialists” assigned to help principals with the district’s teacher evaluation system.

Two principals told Catalyst that these specialists served as an extra layer of bureaucracy and did not help ease the burdensome compliance paperwork that’s required as part of the evaluation system.

In addition, some prominent unfilled positions are being eliminated, including that of former chief financial officer Ginger Ostro and chief of Accountability John Barker, both of whom left the district late last year.

Hard to account for savings

Claypool said the district “had no choice” but to go through with the cuts because of “limited resources and a budget crisis not just this year but into the foreseeable future.”

The crisis has been a long time in the making. After years of taking on unsustainable debt, and even adjusting the fiscal year to capture future tax revenues, last fall the Board of Education approved an operating budget that depended on a half-billion dollars in non-existent aid from Springfield.

At the time Claypool was optimistic that CPS would get that help in the form of pension relief. But state lawmakers have been unable to approve their own budget, let alone agree on whether to help Chicago’s struggling school district.

Meanwhile the district is pushing hard for a contract with the Chicago Teachers Union before the end of the month. Insiders say talks have intensified in recent days and the union’s so-called “big bargaining team” was brought into negotiations on Friday.

Both sides have agreed to move on to the fact-finding process — a legal step that’s required before teachers can go on strike — by Feb. 1 if no deal is reached.

In recent months Claypool has also called on lawmakers to pay into the district’s pension system for teachers as it does in other school districts — but to no avail.

“We are also pressing Springfield to wake up to the injustice that Chicago’s students face a separate but unequal education funding system,” Claypool reiterated in a statement today.

“Chicago students get only 15 percent of the state’s funding despite making up 20 percent of the state’s enrollment — a difference of nearly $500 million. This inequity must end.”

Now Republican lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner are proposing a state takeover of the school district and the option to declare bankruptcy. Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel oppose a takeover.

Today’s layoffs come on the heels of other cutbacks downtown. Earlier this year, CPS announced that it would phase out its 7-percent “pension pickup” for Central Office employees. Claypool also tightened controls on outside food purchases by Central Office — after the Sun-Times published an account of how staff there had spent $1.5 million in a year on pizza and sandwiches.

CPS officials claim today’s job cuts — in combination with another 61 positions eliminated since August — amount to $45 million in annual savings.

But it can often be difficult to verify what CPS says it cuts in Central Office. Over time the district has changed the names of its departments and how it lists them in its budget, as the Better Government Association recently reported.

In the past, these kinds of reorganizations haven’t always resulted in long-term savings. For example, under former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, the district promised to find $107 million in savings by reorganizing Central Office and the networks — which were then called “area offices.” But a 2012 Catalyst analysis showed that after the reorganization, a much smaller number of cuts were made. In fact, the district actually upped its spending on Central Office staff.

*This report was updated at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2015, to include new information from the district.