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CPS predicts big deficits; critics question cost of longer school day

Teacher Gerardo Valdez with Chicago Teachers Unimembers picketing outside Board Educatimeeting 125 S. Clark St.
Wednesday March 28 2012 . |

Teacher Gerardo Valdez with Chicago Teachers Union members picketing outside the Board of Education meeting, 125 S. Clark St. Wednesday, March 28, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: April 30, 2012 8:24AM

Chicago Public School officials Wednesday predicted three years of staggering deficits ahead, just as a long line of parents questioned how a deficit-ridden system could afford a 1 1/2 hour longer school day in all schools, including those that don’t want it.

Longer-day critics — some of whom had been waiting in line to speak since 5:30 a.m. — also accused CPS officials of “playing favorites” by using their own employees to hold spots in line for pro-longer day speakers.

“This is what you are using taxpayer money for?” an angry Sonia Kwon, a member of the parent group Raise Your Hand, asked school board members. “If you want support for CPS, things like this are not going to help.’’

Kate Brandt, cofounder of a group that’s gathered 1,800 online signatures supporting a 6.5-hour school day over the 7.5 hour one pushed by CPS officials, said she saw at least two CPS employees hold spots in lines for speakers.

One of those speakers, Wah Go, said he showed up after a CPS supervisor emailed him, asking that he speak in favor of a longer day at Wednesday’s monthly school board meeting, which attracted a packed crowd, many of them against a 7.5 hour day. Go said he left the CPS sign-up line at one point Wednesday and when he returned, he was directed to the end of the line.

However, Brandt and at least two other bystanders said Go slipped into the No. 25 speaking slot by taking a place in line that a CPS employee had held for him. Brandt was just ahead of Go, at No. 23 of 85 speakers.

“That’s not what happened,’’ insisted CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler. “That’s not their [CPS employee’s] role here.’’

Asked later what length school day he wanted, Go told reporters he favored adding one hour. Told that would make the typical elementary day 6 hours and 45 minutes and CPS officials were advocating a 7.5 hour day, Go then said, “7 1/2 is fine. ... Whatever they (CPS officials) want, we’re in favor of.’’

The “playing favorites’’ charges follow allegations that a minister who receives CPS contracts paid protestors $25 to $50 to show up at public hearings and carry signs or speak in favor of CPS-supported school closings.

Also Wednesday, CPS officials currently locked in talks on a new multi-year teachers contract warned of “staggering deficits’’ in the next three years due to the expiration of one-time fixes and a pension-contribution waiver combined with increasing debt service obligations.

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley predicted a deficit next school year of between $600 million and $700 million, followed the next two years by deficits of $1 billion to $1.3 billion.

“In 2014-2015, the gap is staggering,’’ Cawley said. “It starts to feel like monopoly money. It’s a billion dollar gap.’’

Former Schools CEO Ron Huberman also claimed to face a $1 billion gap at one point, but he won a temporary pension waiver from the Legislature to fill it, along with an unexpected federal windfall. The “daunting” difference this coming year, Cawley said, is that “we don’t see anyone riding in to rescue us.’’

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said he was “skeptical” of the board’s numbers, and questioned how CPS could afford a systemwide 7.5 hour day in all schools if the numbers were true.

“Either they have the money and they are faking the deficit because it’s a negotiating ploy, or they don’t have the money, in which case they are doing the longer day on the cheap in a way that will never work,’’ Sharkey said.

Also Wednesday, CPS officials:

■ Agreed to settle a CTU suit over a longer school day pilot by paying teachers who started working longer days in September $1,500 extra within 30 days. If the new contract entitles them to more money, they would get it retroactively, CTU officials said.

■ Announced that Food Service Director Louise Esaian, accused of accepting coveted football box seats and other gifts from food vendors, resigned Tuesday, one day before board members were expected to approve her termination.

■ Limited the contract term of two charter operators — Youth Connections and ACE Technical Charter High School — so their results could be monitored more closely, and approved the renewals of nine other charter operators.

■ Said that, based on parent complaints, they would expand report card pickup next year from an originally planned three hours to six hours to better accommodate parents who work. Board members approved a new calendar that adds 10 days to the school year starting next school year.

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