Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday July 17th, 2014, 2:21pm

Chicagoans Criticize School Funding Cuts At CPS Budget Hearing (VIDEO)

Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) proposed $5.76 billion spending plan for the 2014-2015 academic year slashes $72 million in funding from 504 traditional neighborhood schools but boosts the budgets of privately-run charter and contract schools by 12 percent.

The funding difference, mostly due to declining enrollment projected at traditional CPS schools and increased enrollment at charters, did not sit well with parents, teachers, education activists and Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who vented their frustrations at a CPS budget hearing Wednesday evening at Malcolm X College on the city's West Side. Education activists toting signs reading, "BOE has different rules for different schools," also spoke out against neighborhood school budget cuts ahead of the hearing.

"There's a crisis in Chicago Public Schools today," Fioretti told the six CPS officials at the hearing. "CPS closed 50 schools last year, supposedly based upon declining enrollment. At the same time, they opened new charter schools. Despite promises of increased funding for existing schools, CPS cut the budget for neighborhood schools this year, while they increased the budget for charter schools. 

"There is no political will from CPS or the fifth floor of this city," he added. "When we decide that politicians should allow charter schools, contract schools and other schools that take away the resources for political ends only, we are depriving our kids of the necessary education here in this city."

CPS held a total of three budget hearings at the same time last night at three locations in the city. 

Wednesday's budget hearing at Malcolm X College was different than others the district has held in the past. CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley answered some questions posed by audience members.

"We will not just sit here stone faced looking at you," Cawley told the crowd of more than 100. "We will answers questions, if there's a specific question."

After he said that, some audience members asked why the district funds charter schools, which are independently run but receive public money and often raise private funds through foundations and philanthropists.

"Charter schools are part of the district's strategy, and 57,000 children are attending those charter schools next year," Cawley responded. "So the funding that is being provided to charter schools is the funding that those children and those families deserve."

Dwayne Truss, a West Side education activist and board member of the Raise Your Hand education coalition, said the 2014-2015 spending plan represents the third straight year that charter schools have seen big boosts in their budgets. 

"Sixty-two million dollars for charter schools," Truss said, adding that contract schools are also slated to receive approximately $11 million under the 2015 budget.  

"When (Cawley) talks about ... charter schools being a part of their strategy, I think ... this is all about privatization and people making money," he stressed.

Here's more from Truss as well as Cawley as he presents some of the proposed 2015 budget to the crowd:

The district's proposed $5.76 billion budget directs about $4.8 billion toward schools.

CPS projects a $876 million budget deficit next school year and looks to close it in part by expanding the length of time in which it collects property taxes. The one-time move, which essentially taps funds that would be made available for the 2016 CPS budget, allows the district to collect about $650 million in property taxes for an additional 60 days after the end of the fiscal year.

"We've had enormous deficits now for several years and fiscal year '15 is no exception," Cawley said. "We're closing those deficits with reserves, with one-time actions, like an accounting change we've made this year, and we've done that to buy time until we get to a situation where we have enough revenue to cover the expenses to keep the district operating the way you want it to operate."

"Without that [one-time slide up of revenue], we wouldn't be able to buy time until we get the action we need in Springfield on pension reform and on more revenue for CPS," he added. The district's pension contribution in 2015 will be $634 million.

The district, Cawley said, has put a focus on "cutting funds away from the classroom." The budget proposal slashes $55 million from the central office, which brings the total amount of central spending cuts since 2011 to $740 million, he said.

Meanwhile, the spending plan increases the funding for student-based budgeting by $70 million, or $250 extra per pupil, to make up for teacher pay bumps required as part of the contract with the Chicago Teachers Union. The proposed budget also includes increased seats at high-performing STEM and IB schools and more opportunities for students to earn college credit while in high school.

"We continue to take the money that we've got, including what we realize through revenue recognition, and invest in a lot of new programs," Cawley said. "And you might ask, 'Why would you do that at a time when you've got these big structural deficits,' and the answer is we're here for the kids."

The plan sets aside $1 million to expand the Safe Passage program, meant to keep kids safe as they travel to and from school. Another $4.5 million will be allocated for seven new Alternative Learning Options Programs, designed to help out-of-school students earn a high school diploma. The district also plans to use $1.4 million to open a new SAFE school to serve an additional 150 students that were expelled due to violence, among other efforts. 

Audience members raised concerns about the current and projected shortages of counselors, librarians and other school staffers at traditional schools as a result of budget cuts.

Ellen Damlich, a CPS teacher librarian of 12 years who works at the North Side's Nicholas Senn High School, said the school district lost more than 140 librarians last year.

"The CEO and mayor promised better resources after the brutal closing of 50 schools," she said. "However, next fall, according to the 2014-2015 budget, there will be 204 fewer librarians than there were in 2012. Only 43 percent of Chicago Public Schools will have professionally staffed libraries. Many schools won't have a library at all."

Dion Bell, a senior at Theodore Roosevelt High School on the Northwest Side, said his school has too few counselors. 

"At my school, there are hundreds of students per counselor," he said. "This is a lot of students to handle for one person. We need more counselors in my school to help students graduate and get ready for college. But instead, this year my school lost almost $1 million. This is not right. CPS needs to put money back into neighborhood schools instead of taking it away."

Cawley explained that under CPS' new student-based budgeting system, principals receive funding to spend on positions at their own discretion based on the number of students in their school. And whether those resources are used to hire positions, such as librarians, is up to principals.

On multiple occasions, audience members asked why CPS is planning to construct a $20 million annex at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Lincoln Park on the North Side to address overcrowding. State funds, according to CPS, will pay for the investments at Lincoln Elementary.

"In Lincoln Park, families are moving in and there are a lot of children," Cawley said. "The school's overcrowded, and the projections are that it will become more so."

Immediately after Cawley said that, one audience member shouted, "Lincoln Park families are white! That's why the money's going there!"

Some of those who questioned a new addition for Lincoln Elementary argued that the school's attendance boundaries should be moved in order to send some of the students to nearby schools that are not overcrowded.

"Anywhere else in this city, you would have used boundary change[s], moving the gifted program out of Lincoln — some other method that costs no money," said Lincoln Park community member Michelle Hoppe Villegas. "But in this wealthy neighborhood, you appease the privileged." 

CPS parent Sherise McDaniel also questioned plans for the annex. McDaniel has two children attending CPS, including a 9 year-old son at George Manierre Elementary School in Old Town, which won a reprieve from last year's round of school closings. 

"To stop the closing of our school, we offered classrooms to (Lincoln Elementary) (when) CPS was spending thousands of dollars to rent rooms from DePaul so that the kids could go there for the overflow," McDaniel said. "You all said that it's not that easy to change boundaries. Well, you all wanted to change our boundaries in a heartbeat so that our kids would have to attend Jenner [Elementary Academy of the Arts], which is across Division [Street], a big intersection."

Jonathan Jackson, national spokesman for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, urged CPS to reconsider the planned $20 million Lincoln Elementary annex.

"We can use that money that's going into a building (and) put (it) back into the workforce, to put back into the children, so that they can stop this violence," he told the officials.

The final budget is set to go before the Chicago Board of Education on July 23. Read more about the proposed spending plan on the CPS website.

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