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Last Night’s CPS Budget Hearings: A Seemingly Done Deal

The Chicago Public Schools system took its 2012 budget to the public Wednesday night with its North Side field hearing at Lane Tech High School, 2501 W. Addison St. With a proposed 2.4-percent property tax increase on the table, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials might have expected a taxpayer revolt. Instead, the audience was largely made up of teachers, custodians and union officials upset about job cuts. Homeowners were mostly absent from the hearing, perhaps because the tax hike smacks of a done deal.

As a trio of CPS finance execs took their seats behind a table situated in the orchestra pit of Lane Tech’s auditorium, it was hard not to notice that the number crunchers were barely visible to the audience of approximately 75-100 people (“on purpose” muttered one attendee). The scenario presented was certainly nothing to be proud of: a $712 million budget shortfall, whittled down to $241 million even with $150 million from the tax hike, with the remaining shortfall erased by tapping reserve funds from the 2011 budget. Revenues are down across the board at the local, state and federal levels, with expenses on the rise, including growing health care costs.

Though CPS was able to, among other priorities, maintain class size, pre-K funding and expand all-day kindergarten, deputy budget director Arnaldo Rivera stated that “program reductions were inevitable at some point.” These included supplemental positions at turnaround and selective enrollment schools.

It gets worse. Creative accounting in the form of debt restructuring and state permission to delay teacher pension payments resulted in savings for the current budget. But in 2014, those bills will come due and to create a projected budget shortfall of $862 million.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis testifies at last night's CPS budget field hearing at Lane Tech High School. Credit: Sarah Tilotta.

The plan, according to CPS budget director Ginger Ostro, is to “work harder going forward to identify efficiencies.” In other words, expect ongoing doomsday budgets.

Yet of the various stakeholders in CPS, which include taxpayers, parents, students and employees, only the last group turned out in force to question the budget’s cuts and projections.

More than 200 school custodians recently received pink slips; many of them were on hand to ask Melanie Shaker, interim CPS Chief Financial Officer, “Why did I lose my job?”

Shaker’s answer: “We know there have been painful cuts.”

TIF funds, in particular, were targeted as a source of untapped revenue that could have spared eliminated positions, saved supplemental programs axed by the budget, covered teacher raises the Board of Education recently nullified and negated the need for a property tax increase. A representative from Raise Your Hand, a parent group that most recently advocated for a return of recess, noted that the TIF balance exceeds $1.5 billion, with $867 million of that unallocated. Why, many wondered, is this money not going to the school system?

“We do receive TIF funds but they must be used for capital projects. They cannot be used for solving deficits,” noted Shaker. (Though this begged a follow-up inquiry into why the rules governing TIF funds can’t be restructured, an aggressive CPS communications staffer blocked media from speaking with CPS officials after the hearing.)

The loudest applause of the evening was reserved for Debby Pope, a teacher at Gage Park High School. “I note the amount allocated for charter schools has gone up. How is it justifiable not to cap that when you’re decreasing programs to neighborhood schools, which are resource starved and dealing with at-risk students?”

Shaker replied, “To CPS, charter schools are CPS schools.”

The frustration of educators was palpable at being excluded from the budgeting process. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, echoed the feelings of many of those present: “Comment should come at the beginning of the process. This [budget] looks like a done deal.” She urged CPS to give teachers a seat at the budget table, not next year but next week. “We could find efficiencies and help you. Those of us who work in this system every day have a lot to say.”

Two more budget hearings are scheduled:

August 11, 7 p.m., Westinghouse High School, 3223 W. Franklin

August 12, 7 p.m., Simeon High School, 8147 S. Vincennes

Chicago Teachers Union