School board, community members weigh in on Chicago Public Schools budget

A woman speaks at a lectern at a Chicago school board meeting. Her back is to the camera, with her face turned toward the members of the school board, who sit at a shared dais.
Jocilyn Floyd, a mediator and parent of a former Chicago Public Schools student, participates in public comment at Tuesday night’s budget hearing. Registration for public comment at these budget hearings has closed, but community members can attend capital budget hearings on Wednesday and Friday. (Max Lubbers / Chalkbeat)

At a pair of hearings ahead of the city school board’s vote on the Chicago Public Schools budget, advocates raised concerns over the time frame given for individual schools to respond to their campus’s spending plan and board members asked questions about strategies to allocate funding equitably. 

City officials presented details of the proposal at hearings Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. Community members also had the chance to weigh in on the specific capital budget Tuesday afternoon, but no speakers showed. Two more hearings on the capital budget are scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 21 and 12 p.m. on June 23.

Under the proposed plan, the CPS budget would remain steady at $9.4 billion, though more funds will be funneled directly to schools. Ninety percent of schools would see an increase on a per-pupil basis, with 39 schools slated to receive budget cuts, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. Three of those schools have a majority white student body, 24 are predominantly Black, and eight are majority Latino. Overall, schools with a predominantly Black enrollment would have the most significant per-pupil increases.

The district said proposed cuts were primarily driven by significant enrollment losses. But Dulce Arroyo, a community organizer and former CPS teacher, said enrollment losses should be taken as a sign of needing more support, not less. 

“The youth have been demanding everything they need to feel safe, heard, and valued as human beings, not as dollar signs,” Arroyo said during public comment at the Tuesday night hearing. “Instead of keeping schools fully staffed and funded and making them safe spaces for these committees, the board continues to take away funds and resources. It makes zero sense that the district wants stellar enrollment rates, while it also takes more funds and resources away every year.”

Though enrollment remains a factor, the district has been moving away from mostly enrollment-based allocations. CPS uses an “opportunity index” — a formula based on community and student characteristics — to identify schools with high needs and to direct funding accordingly. 

Of the school-level funding, about half — or $128 million — would go to hiring staff to support students with disabilities. This comes as the Illinois Board of Education found CPS violated state law in restraint and seclusion practices, an issue particularly impacting students with disabilities.

The budget would also continue to invest in nurses, social workers, and case managers, bringing staffing levels of each of these categories to what officials say are all-time highs. 

Other staffing highlights include: 

  • $15 million to provide additional district-funded counselors at 131 highest-need schools
  • 50 advocates for students in temporary living situations 
  • $15 million increase of funding for bilingual instruction, $8 million of which district officials  say would go to schools with recent influxes of migrant students 

Every school in CPS will be required to have a social worker by 2024, according to a contract between the district and Chicago Teachers Union. Ben Felton, chief talent officer at CPS, said at Wednesday afternoon’s budget hearing that the district is up 50 social workers, 50 nurses, and 80 additional counselors from this time last year. 

In fiscal year 2024, the district will look to hire an additional 60 social workers, according to its proposed budget book.

“There’s opening the positions and budgeting for them, but there’s actually finding the human beings to do this work,” said Felton at Tuesday night’s hearing. “For the first time, as far as I can tell in CPS history, we’ve got a devoted school social worker recruitment team that’s in our office and we just launched that team a couple of weeks ago.”

Felton told Chalkbeat that it’s generally more difficult to fill social worker positions, so the district is hoping this effort will help. CPS instituted a similar recruitment team for nurses a few years ago, he added.

The school board is expected to vote on the budget at its June 28 meeting. 

Push for more planning in future budgets

Two people at the Tuesday night hearing said there was not enough time for local school councils to review their individual school budgets before being asked to approve or appeal them in May. Principals received draft budgets in mid-April.

Natasha Erskine is the local school council director at education advocacy group Raise Your Hand. She said at the Tuesday night hearing that her organization sent a request signed by nearly 200 independent LSC members asking for more time to review these budgets.

“What I would hope that the board can really lean in on is making sure that the budget next year gives adequate time to local councils,” Erskine said. “That way we can make sure that all of these gaps that we’re talking about real time get the adequate support and accountability that it deserves.”

At Tuesday night’s budget hearing, school board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland also stressed the importance of planning for the loss of federal COVID recovery money, which must be spent by September 2024. 

Michael Sitkowski, deputy chief of Office of Budget and Grants Management of CPS, said the district will need to seek additional funding to avoid cuts in the future. 

“CPS is the only district in the state whose full teacher pension cost is not essentially covered by the state of Illinois,” he said at Tuesday night’s hearing. This coming school year, the district is expected to make a $700 million payment to the Chicago teachers pension fund. 

The state uses an “evidence-based funding formula” to calculate how much each school district needs to educate the students it serves. For example, districts receive more money if they serve more students who are low-income or who are learning English.

CPS receives only 75% of what the evidence-based funding formula says the district needs to be adequately funded, leaving CPS with a shortfall of nearly $1.4 billion, Sitkowski said at Tuesday night’s hearing.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to decrease inequities here,” said Todd-Breland Tuesday night. “Hopefully we can have ongoing conversations with our state and other partners about how we can move forward in a way that is equitable.” 

Proposed school construction budget smaller for now

The district also hosted the first of three public hearings on its $155 million facilities plan earlier Tuesday afternoon. Registration for public comment at these hearings has closed, but community members can attend the final capital budget hearings Wednesday and Friday.

The scaled-down proposal — a fraction of last year’s $644.5 million capital budget — is only an initial plan to cover what officials described as the district’s most pressing building needs through the summer and early fall. District leaders will unveil a more complete capital plan for the school year by the end of 2023, following a comprehensive review of its facility needs that’s now underway. 

At the Tuesday afternoon hearing, no public speakers turned up to provide input on the capital budget proposal. Officials offered a brief overview of the plan and answered several questions submitted ahead of the hearing. For instance, they explained that the district took into account the urgency of repair needs and its “opportunity index” to decide on priorities for the plan. 

The capital budget drew a livelier discussion during a Wednesday morning school board meeting to preview next week’s monthly meeting agenda. Board members wanted to know what new information the wholesale review of facility needs would yield — and how the district would address climate change in its planning, among other questions. 

District officials explained that the new review will look more closely at whether campuses meet students’ educational needs, including whether there is a gym and a cafeteria. It will also evaluate what it would take to modernize district buildings, which are 83-years-old on average, and to make them accessible for people with disabilities. 

They said the district is looking at ways to improve campuses’ energy efficiency, including piloting solar panels and adding electric vehicle charging stations to new parking lots.

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