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Editorial: Budget crisis lurks behind other CPS woes

CPS has designated 'Safe Passage' routes with yellow signs before school opens Monday.  |  Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

CPS has designated "Safe Passage" routes with yellow signs before school opens on Monday. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 27, 2013 6:05AM

On this first day of school in Chicago, the lion’s share of attention will focus on just how safe are CPS’ “safe passage” routes and just how prepared are the 51 schools welcoming students from schools closed in June.

As it should be.

But lurking in the background is an even bigger story — a quieter, less showy one that left unaddressed could undermine every gain the schools have made and undercut every plan in the works.

We’re talking about CPS’ anemic budget and the slow-bleed crisis it has spawned.

Faced with rising costs, most notably a $404 million increase in its pension bill this year, CPS’ budget ax hacked deeply into the schools this year, eliminating art teachers, reading teachers, toilet paper budgets, counselors, bus and classroom aides, clerks and lunchroom ladies. The school board votes on this budget Wednesday.

And this is just the beginning. CPS’ pension bill stays at an elevated level for the foreseeable future. This year, CPS is relying on $700 million in mostly one-time reserves to fill a nearly $1 billion deficit. Next year’s hole is estimated at $914 million.

Without cuts to teacher pension benefits — and we have argued strongly for the state Legislature to do that today, right now — and revenue growth, CPS does not have enough dollars to go beyond a bare-bones education.

Consider this year’s damage: CPS says its overall spending plan includes a $68 million cut to the school-based instructional budget for traditional and charter schools. With offsetting spending increases, CPS says the net cut is $20 million.

But that’s just a portion of what is spent at each school. A look at total budgets by the parent group Raise Your Hand yields an estimated loss of $164 million for traditional public schools. RYH excluded charter schools. The $164 million includes losses attributable to funding formulas that are outside CPS’ control and to changes in enrollment at individual schools. RYH did not calculate a net figure.

Theses cuts include staff hired just last year to enrich a longer school day, as well as extra staff that can make the difference between a school that functions and one that can barely keep the lights on.

In many cases, the cuts have hit schools in better-off neighborhoods particularly hard, such as Blaine in Lake View, that has over the last 10 to 15 years drawn in neighborhood families to create one of the city’s top scoring non-selective elementary schools. Blaine’s budget was cut $610,000.

Cut too deep and families with options will leave, stripping Chicago of its essential middle class base.

“I know lots of families that are leaving and I don’t blame them,” parent Janet Meegan told us.

Meegan’s son goes to Mitchell Elementary in West Town. Her local school council and principal told parents that the up-and-coming school faced nearly $800,000 in cuts, forcing them to jettison the librarian, a reading specialist hired to enhance the longer school day and a bilingual teacher.

The lowest-income schools haven’t been spared either, places where families have fewer options.

“People who can will leave for someplace where it’s easier to live,” Meegan said. “And then you have a lot of families who are stuck.”

In years past, about 60 percent of teachers laid off were rehired elsewhere in the school system, CPS says, though it’s hard to see the school system matching that rate in this difficult budget year.

It’s also important to note that CPS this summer has released an extra $50 million to schools and hiring has been on-going since the biggest round of layoffs in late July. CPS’ spokeswoman says some schools have reversed decisions to eliminate positions. The true state of hiring won’t be clear until well into September.

Perhaps this year’s damage isn’t as bad as many parents fear.

But even that won’t change the grim outlook for future years.

The question then, on this first day of school, is what kind of schools does Chicago want?

And most importantly, are we willing to cut pension costs and find more money to support them?

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