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Rahm Emanuel’s $75M CPS cuts mean longer rides, dirtier schools

Chicago Public Schools students will face longer bus rides under budget cuts. | John H. White~Sun-Times library

Chicago Public Schools students will face longer bus rides under the budget cuts. | John H. White~Sun-Times library

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:28AM

Chicago Public Schools students will have longer bus rides and schools that are half-empty will be dirtier — thanks to $75 million in “non-classroom” cuts ordered Thursday by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked schools team.

With a $720 million deficit — and $77 million more in new budget cuts authorized by the Illinois General Assembly — the latest round of bureaucratic belt-tightening merely keeps the system “running in place,” as chief operating officer Tim Cawley put it.

But the cuts send a powerful message to two important players: the state, which owes CPS $300 million, and a Chicago Teachers Union that will be asked to make concessions to help eliminate the shortfall, Emanuel said.

“Your hand is strengthened … by telling the state, ‘We are making the tough decisions and the smart decisions.’ When we go in and advocate, ‘We need you to pay your bills,’ they don’t just think it’s going into some big black hole in the bureaucracy,” the mayor said during a news conference at South Loop Elementary, 1212 S. Plymouth Court.

As for the teachers union, Emanuel said, “We inherited at the city a $600 million [operating] deficit. We’re gonna fix it. The schools? $720 [million]. ... We’ve got to make the tough calls, but everybody will have some skin in the game.”

Asked if she was prepared to put some “skin in the game,” CTU President Karen Lewis said, “I don’t even know what that means. To me, it’s rhetoric.”

Lewis later released a statement noting that the $75 million in cuts merely returns CPS to the “status quo” after the $77 million in state budget cuts. The fact that so much money could be cut from administration and bureaucracy “underscores the need for more transparency” in school spending, she said.

“The citizens of Chicago need to see every line of school spending — how much is spent, on what, and to whom. Then we can have a frank priority-setting session that addresses research-based education policy,” Lewis said.

Last month, in his first full day in office, Emanuel honored a campaign promise by ordering $75 million in cuts to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s final city budget.

Now, newly-appointed Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has matched his boss with school cuts that, he insists, will not impact the classroom, but will be felt by students who ride buses and those who attend half-empty schools.

“Just by lengthening some of the routes a little bit, we can save $5 million,” Cawley said of the bussing cuts. The rides would be five to 10 minutes longer, officials said.

“If some students have to ride a little bit longer on the bus, we’ll do it that way,’’ Cawley said. “I’m hoping that’s not the case. … I’m actually pretty confident we’re going to be able save that $5 million through negotiating better contracts with our bus operators.”

The $7.5 million in savings from custodial services will come primarily by cleaning only the utilized portion of half-empty schools. Another $200,000 will come from shrinking a custodial crew that supplements school cleaners.

“We have … whole floors that don’t have any children in them. We are paying outside custodians to clean those floors, clean those classrooms as if there are children in them every day. … We’re not gonna do that anymore,” Cawley said.

The biggest savings — $44 million — will come from shrinking bond issues for capital projects that will now be delayed.

Another $17.2 million in cuts will hit the central office, a target of virtually every school administration.

This round includes: 20 layoffs; elimination of 40 open or soon-to-be-vacant positions; cuts in contractual services; and delays in the purchase of office equipment and computer and software upgrades.

“My commitment is to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” Brizard said.

Emanuel added, “By cutting the bureaucracy first and preserving resources for the classroom, it makes a statement as powerful as the money about where you set the priorities. Every decision we’re gonna make is how to preserve the classroom for the children so they can learn.”

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