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Raucous Chicago Board of Ed meeting after school closures, looming budget cuts

CPS teacher CynthiSmith marches with sticker displaying Lane Tech's proposed budget cuts while walking with demonstrators from Chicago Teacher's UniWednesday

CPS teacher Cynthia Smith, marches with a sticker displaying Lane Tech's proposed budget cuts while walking with demonstrators from the Chicago Teacher's Union, Wednesday June 26, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 30, 2013 7:45AM

On a day marked by protests and outbursts about “draconian” cuts to Chicago Public Schools’ budgets, Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale said that cuts stemming from the district’s giant budget deficit will certainly hit classrooms.

“Nobody I know has said that cuts to meet our responsibilities wouldn’t affect the classroom,” Vitale said at Wednesday’s monthly board meeting. “What we have said is we will minimize the effect in the classroom. There is probably no way we can deal with a problem of that size without having some impact on our schools . . . Nobody should be naïve to think that it won’t impact classrooms when all is said and done.”

Proposed budget cuts to individual schools dominated the meeting as they have the conversation since CPS released the figures to principals and Local School Councils shortly after approving the closure of 48 schools this month. CPS has not officially released draft budget numbers to the public, they’ve trickled out via principals and the LSCs. The district has said it will publish its final proposal sometime in July; the board votes on the final budget likely in August.

Figures gathered so far from 125 schools total about $82 million in cuts, according to the parent group Raise Your Hand. Many schools have said that the new student-based budgeting system, though heralded as providing greater autonomy to principals, is resulting in significantly less money.

Board member and former principal Mahalia Hines said she’s been though bad budget years before.

“The really great principals were able to continue to carry on,” Hines said. “You can’t just find money. This is a very difficult situation for all of us . . ..”

Hines and the other board members stressed the cash-strapped district’s position shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“It is painful, there’s no question it’s painful,” said Andrea Zopp. “We have been saying for a long time that we have a significant budget issue and what you are seeing this year is this board . . . doing what we can to address those budget issues and put this system in a position to deliver a quality education to every child.

“But the idea that this board doesn’t care about these children, that this board is insensitive or that this board would walk away from a magical pile of money that would solve this problem is magical thinking.”

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the cuts “draconian,” saying they “will have a massive negative effect on the instructional programs at those schools.”

“Frankly it’s misleading to say ‘we’re keeping the cuts away from the classroom’ without acknowledging how deep the cuts in the local school budgets are,” he said. “What is the total number of cuts in the school budgets? And you know they have claimed they’re not final budgets but in the budgets as they currently exist, what are they? I feel like we owe it to the people of Chicago to tell the truth about that number.”

Georgia Waller, parent of an autistic son atBeard Elementary School which serves all special education students, pleaded with the board to visit the school before voting on a budget that would force some 21 jobs to be cut at the Far Northwest Side school.

“These students need places like Beard with special educational settings to help them grow into productive members of society,” Waller said. “Budget cuts will cut off the opportunity for our students to go from dependent to independent lives.”

Raise Your Hand’s director Wendy Katten said her son’s school is cutting its reading specialist and four other positions, though the district keeps spending money on charters and specials like International Baccalaureate programs to schools accepting students from the 48 closed schools.

“The full day is going to be pretty empty at Burley Elementary this year,” she said. “You’re adding more and more while you are cutting and not even preserving programs that you have right before your very eyes in schools like Burley Elementary.”

Katten later was escorted out of the meeting that at times grew raucous, as were a handful of students from Kelly and Gage Park high schools, organized as Chicago Students to Save Our Schools.

“We are the students, these are our schools. These are our teachers. We have the right!” one girl hollered atop a chair.

“I am a student. CPS is implementing massive budget cuts,” said a student from Kelly High School, which is reportedly losing $4 million.

“That’s the only student voice at the meeting,” teacher Xian Barrett said before he too was removed.

“We are not going without a fight. You will see us again. You will see us again,” another girl yelled.

The morning began with about 150 people marching from CPS, 125 S. Clark St., to the State and Adams branch of Bank of America, who the union blames for bad finance deals with the district. Protesters tried to enter the lobby, but police corralled them back onto the street.

Teachers wore stickers with the cut amounts on them: -$535K on Tracy Barrientos from Jungman. -$1.1 million on several students from Whitney Young Magnet High School.

“We all voted yesterday to pay out of pocket for classroom supplies in order to save one person’s position,” said Eric Skalinder who teaches music at Kelly High School, where 23 teachers and 7 security guards were laid off due to budget cuts. Teachers had been given $250 a year to pay for classroom supplies.

“It’s not just that we’re hit in the classroom. We had 88 percent of our transportation budget cut. How do we do field trips, sports trips, museums?” said Skalinder.

Kelly rising senior Michael Sanchez, 17, said he was close to two of the recently laid off teachers.

“Ms. Peach, my English teacher was the one who inspired me to keep going to school when I was ready to drop out,” Sanchez said.

Contributing: Meenakshi Dalal

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