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CPS OKs $6.6B budget despite objections by parents, LSCs

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Updated: September 30, 2013 7:39AM

Despite criticism from local school councils, parents and several local think tanks, the Board of Education unanimously approved the Chicago Public Schools’ $6.6 billion budget Wednesday.

Several of the seven board members appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel had questions before the vote, but ultimately all voted in favor of the $6.6 billion budget. It raised property taxes to the maximum allowed, for an additional $88.6 million; laid off teachers and closed programs in efforts to close a giant budget gap CPS estimated at nearly $1 billion.

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said some of the increases in CPS’ Talent Office, Office of New Schools and his own department pay for displaced teachers; expansions to Jones College Prep High School and the Disney II Magnet school, and allow for moving engineers from individual schools to his office.

Student-based budgeting increases the “equity and transparency in how we’re funding our schools,” with charters and neighborhood schools getting the same amount per child, Cawley said.

“If the kids aren’t there, we take the money away,” he said. Meanwhile, unless the state acts to increase school funding or cut pension spending, the future looks “grim,” he said.

“Everyone’s feeling the pressure of reduced resources this year,” he said.

Several think tanks drew attention to the budget’s problems. Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation called it “not sustainable,” considering that CPS already is predicting budget gaps in 2015 and 2016 of $1 billion.

“We’ll be going into those budget cycles without any leeway or reserves,” he said.

Rod Estvan, of the Access Living organization, which advocates for disabled people, also raised the issue of how charters got an added $10 million for special education, though they didn’t increase the number of special-education students.

And Wendy Katten, head of the parent group Raise Your Hand, cited a former CPS employee who wrote another critique for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“His report affirms what we’ve been saying all summer, which is that this budget cuts schools by what he found was $185 millions, while increases to charter spending was $85 million,” Katten said. “I know it’s easy to dismiss parents when they give you these findings, but I hope you don’t dismiss the person who worked here on your budgeting process.”

Katten said CPS decided to increase funding to certain offices and sign a $20-million, no-bid training contract with the SUPES academy.

“You said this is important, we need to fund this and we’re going to cut these traditional schools. That was your choice,” she said.

The Chicago Teachers Union also released its analysis of the CPS budget, saying it “spends money on initiatives that promote instability, instead of investing in stable schools.”

“Your budget is written on the other side of a promissory note which has come back marked insufficient funds. On the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington . . . this budget is not living up to a promise of the schoolchildren of Chicago and to the educators of Chicago,” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said.

Parents, local school councils and the CTU tallied up the cuts to schools — who lost a librarian, how many teachers were cut. At least five LSCs still have not approved their individual school budgets, according to the Common Sense Coalition. They say the student-based budgeting sticks them with less money overall and leaves principals with tough layoff decisions.

For the first time, final funding to schools will be based on enrollment taken on the 10th day of class, instead of the 20th. Because school started a week early this year, that figure will be taken early, too, about a week after Labor Day. That will give schools less time to get children into class.

Outside CPS’ headquarters, a few hundred protesters took a final stand against the cuts and called for an elected school board. Community activists called for students to boycott classes, part of a national effort by groups in 25 cities to protest school closings and budget cuts on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington. After approving school closings earlier this year, CPS began the new year with nearly 50 fewer schools.

But when some people tried to get inside for the meeting, many were told they couldn’t enter because they hadn’t signed up ahead of time — and there wouldn’t be an overflow room as in previous months.

CPS spokesman Dave Miranda said only a small number of observers registered online, so the district didn’t expect it would need the usual overflow room, which was opened by the meeting’s start. By that time, many folks who were turned away had already gone home.

Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said her office had not received any complaints about the meeting but was reviewing the facts of what happened to see if the Open Meetings Act could have been violated.

“Some of the circumstances raise a number of questions,” she said. “I can definitively say that noone should be turned away for failure to register for advance if there is space in the room.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday pleaded with adults to keep their kids in class, a plea that most parents appeared to heed but Irene Robinson ignored.

Robinson showed up outside CPS headquarters Wednesday with six of her grandchildren — “a good education,” she said. “I want my kids to see what’s happening now and to let them know it’s not right.”

Rico Gutstein of Teachers for Social Justice cried: “We need a people’s board like a fish needs water! We need [Board President] David Vitale like a fish needs a bicycle.”

Boycott organizer Jitu Brown, of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, estimated that 250 students protested as part of 1,100 participants by the end. Police put that total number at closer to 400. A CPS spokeswoman said attendance figures wouldn’t be available until Thursday, but CPS had no way to differentiate boycott absences from kids who called out sick.

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