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Schools not closing feel CPS budget sting

Mayor Rahm Emanuel teaching Civics students Frederick FunstElementary School Thursday May 9 2013.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, teaching Civics to students at Frederick Funston Elementary School, Thursday, May 9, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 24, 2013 6:55AM

Faced with a need to reduce spending for next year, many Chicago Public School principals are turning first to the programs added last: those that were intended to enrich Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s longer school day.

Arts, foreign-language classes and even recess are among the first programs being shed by principals trying to deal with budget cuts of 10 percent or more.

Many of those were added for this school year as part of Emanuel’s promise to make the longer school day that he demanded an improved “Full School Day.”

“What was the point in extending the school day?” asked Jonathan Harris, one of the parents I met Friday protesting CPS budget cuts outside the Thompson Center.

Fair question.

Harris, 42, has a first- and fourth-grader at Burley Elementary in Lake View, where the local school council has reluctantly signed off on $600,000 in cuts that will eliminate the school’s arts program and reduce Spanish instruction and P.E. to once every two weeks.

Similar cuts — and worse — have left parents and local school councils in shock as principals try to cope with lower budget allocations that are landing like the second-half of a combination punch just as CPS closes the doors on 50 schools.

As I mentioned the other day, these cuts seem to be getting lost in the midst of the more immediate drama of the closings.

I can understand that readers may be growing weary of the whole Chicago school funding issue by now, but if you have kids in the public schools or just pay city property taxes, this is no time to stop paying attention.

While your local school may have avoided the pain of the closings, it’s doubtful your school will be able to avoid the impact of these cuts — if they go through.

On that final point, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll continues to suggest that I’m jumping the gun here, that the school budgets are only preliminary and that when the budget is final, we will “see that the overall impact on schools is minimal.”

Not being a CPS budget expert, I can’t discount that possibility, although it’s clear to me the alarm is very real on the principals’ end and that if there is relief coming, nobody has let them in on the secret.

With CPS projecting a $1 billion budget deficit for next school year, Carroll said the need for some cuts shouldn’t be a surprise.

“There’s going to be some pain. No doubt about it,” she said.

But under the new per-pupil budgeting system put in place by CPS, there will be “winners and losers” — with some schools getting more and some less, she said.

Unfortunately, Carroll won’t quantify which schools fall in which category, and there is reason to question how many schools are in that winners column.

Wendy Katten, director of the Raise Your Hand group that hosted Friday’s protest rally, has already identified at least 100 schools reporting more than $70 million in total cuts and only found a scant few with an increase.

Admittedly, those schools that are being cut are more likely to speak out, but it’s also likely nobody will ever hear from the schools with weak parental leadership.

Carroll said the budget picture could change dramatically if the state Legislature approves a pension-funding reform plan for Chicago teachers that would alleviate a requirement for CPS to come up with an additional $400 million this year.

That’s certainly a possibility, too, although you’ve probably figured out by now how difficult it is to fix the public pension problem.

As to the impact of the cuts on the mayor’s longer school day, Carroll emphasized CPS is not eliminating funding for the curriculum enhancements that accompanied the additional time in school.

Instead, that funding was “rolled into” the per-pupil allocation on which the school budgets are now based and that give principals more “autonomy” in where they cut.

Still, she allowed, “I think it is troubling for us as well seeing what the impacts are.”

One principal recently made a PowerPoint presentation to his school community that summed up the opinion of many of his colleagues about the new budget process.

“Don’t want autonomy,” it stated. “Need money.”

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