School budget cuts spread across city

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Schurz High School on the North Side will take a $970,818 budget hit next year — the second largest in the city — due largely to a projected student enrollment drop of 186.

Yet Principal Dan Kramer, who in recent months has become a vocal critic of charter school growth at the expense of neighborhood school enrollment, says he actually thought it would be worse.

“I was expecting a draconian doomsday budget, and it’s not really that,” he says. “It’s really manageable.”

That’s what many principals said as CPS distributed school-level budgets on Monday. One reason high schools aren’t suffering as much as they anticipated is that their enrollments already are so low. Only four neighborhood high schools are facing more than $1 million in cuts; last year more than a third of all neighborhood high schools saw cuts that large.

Still, most neighborhood high schools will have less revenue, with three of every five losing at least $100,000, mostly due to continued declines in enrollment projections.

The big news was that CPS plans to maintain last year’s per-pupil spending levels — which vary depending on grade — even though school budgets as a whole are down about $31 million from last year. The reduction reflects declining school enrollments, which affect core instruction and supplemental dollars coming into the system, including extra money for students living in poverty and those working to master English.

So far, CPS has made only school-level budgets public. And those depend in part on obtaining a new $500 million in state aid through pension reform that has not yet materialized.

State law requires that the full budget be approved by the Board of Education before the end of August.

Principals have until July 24 to turn in their line-item school budgets, leaving them little time to get approval from their Local School Councils.

The school-level budgets show a continued trend of decreasing enrollment — and funding — for neighborhood schools and increases for charter schools. District-run schools as a whole will lose about $60 million in funding next year, while other types of schools will gain about $31 million.

Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says the funding loss for district-run schools could translate into as many as 600 layoffs. “That’s going to be felt in the classroom,” he said.

Those potential cuts, he notes, would be on top of the 1,050 job cuts and the closing of 350 vacancies that CPS announced earlier this month. The CTU still doesn’t know how many of the previously announced cuts will be union members.

Other major points in the data:

  • Of the 28 schools losing $600,000 or more in total funding, 15 are on the South Side, nine are on the North Side and four are on the West Side. Twenty-two are district-run schools.
  • Of the 27 schools gaining $600,000 or more in total funding, 13 are on the South Side, seven are on the North Side and seven are on the West Side. Twenty are charters or contract schools.
  • More than a quarter of all schools are losing or gaining no more than $70,000 — just under last year’s average salary of a full-time teacher, according to state data.
  • CPS-run elementary schools are projected to lose the most students — 2,708 — but they are not losing as much money proportionately as high schools are. Just under half are losing more than $100,000.

Impact on charter schools

While the district’s per-pupil funding level is the same for all types of schools, charters can more readily cope with cuts because, for the most part, they are not bound by teacher contracts that set pay levels and require raises based on years of service and graduate credits.

Andrew Broy, president of the advocacy group Illinois Network of Charter Schools, points out that charter schools still have to cover costs not incurred by district-run schools, such as rent and building bonds.

In addition, they have to contend with CPS’s recent decision to cut $15.8 million from start-up cash for charters, contract schools and alternative schools for the coming school year. That will likely create budget holes for new charters and charters adding grades.

Not all charter schools gained students — or additional funding.

Some CPS data released early on Monday was inaccurate and showed a substantial loss of students at 10 of the 16 Noble Network of Charter Schools campuses, including more than 100 students at three of the schools. The data later were corrected: All 10 of those schools are projected to lose enrollment, but the numbers are significantly lower — ranging from 32 fewer students at the Pritzker campus to 94 at Comer.

Matt McCabe, Noble’s director of government affairs, says that in general some of the campuses have seen demographic peaks and valleys, as do all types of schools.

The six Noble campuses that are seeing enrollment gains are all adding grades.

Principals’ reaction

CPS principals were given their school budgets during meetings with their network chiefs at Westinghouse College Prep throughout the day on Monday. As they entered the West Side school, many seemed nervous. One principal shook her head and said she wasn’t expecting good things. Another, when asked how he was doing said: “We will know in about an hour.”

The tone changed for many after the meetings. Several principals told Catalyst they were “pleasantly surprised” the per-pupil spending amount won’t change next year. Those amounts vary from $4,390 to $5,444, depending on the student’s grade level.

“It’s not as bad as you might think. They did a good job,” said a principal at a McKinley Park school, who asked not to be identified.

Dennis Sweeney, principal at Grissom Elementary on the Southeast Side, called it a “pretty positive” budget. His school is projected to gain five students next year and supplemental funds will pay the cost of a half-time bilingual instructor.

“In the general budget, I got about $15,000 more,” Sweeney said. But in order to pay for raises for his veteran teachers, he said he’ll be “holding the line” from last year on hiring.

Meanwhile, on the Northwest Side, Ebinger Elementary Principal Serena Peterson says she’s losing some of her more veteran teachers to retirement and will be replacing them with “mid-level,” staff who are less expensive to hire. Last year her school got additional funds to help offset the cost of the more experienced staff.

End to ‘hold harmless’ policy

Overall, Peterson said she’s positive about her budget — which projects 32 new students and an additional $93,714. Some of the new cash will help pay for a half-time bilingual instructor, and the district will continue to pay for a coordinator for her school’s International Baccalaureate program, entering its second year, and a world language Spanish teacher.

“I’m feeling a lot better about my budget than I was a year ago,” she said, noting that last year her school was “held harmless” after it failed to meet its projected enrollment.

During a conference call on Monday morning, CPS officials said the district will no longer hold schools harmless if they fail to meet enrollment projections, as it has since switching to student-based budgeting two years ago. About half of schools would have lost money if the cuts had gone through last year.

CPS Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro says while the district was previously able to ease the transition to student-based budgeting, this year it can’t because of a projected $1.1 billion deficit, fueled mainly by back payments into the teacher pension fund.

Although the district did not provide full details to reporters about revenue projections, Ostro says CPS expects to get $106 million less in state funding than it did in the 2014-2015 school year. Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) spokesman Matt Vanover confirmed that the state has provided CPS a forecast for general state aid of approximately that amount.

Catalyst reporting intern Meg Anderson contributed to this report.