After Largest School Shutdown in History, Spared Schools See Few Financial Benefits

Matthew Blake

Whittier Elementary, in Chicago's mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood, is starting the year without an athletic facility after the city demolished the school's field house in July, citing disrepair. The field house also housed a community education center and library (Josh K/Flickr/Creative Commons).

In push­ing through the clo­sures of 50 neigh­bor­hood Chica­go schools this sum­mer over the vocif­er­ous objec­tions of the teach­ers union and com­mu­ni­ty groups, May­or Rahm Emanuel and his hand­picked school board argued that the shut­downs would make up for bud­get short­ages and direct more resources to oth­er neigh­bor­hood schools.

But a week into the school year, the remain­ing schools appear to be receiv­ing no imme­di­ate finan­cial ben­e­fits from the closings.

The school year start­ed on Mon­day for all 403,000 Chica­go Pub­lic Schools stu­dents. Media cov­er­age has large­ly focused on the safe pas­sage” routes that the dis­trict drew up to help the 12,500 stu­dents affect­ed by the clos­ings walk to their new schools. The clos­ings prompt­ed wide­spread con­cern that dis­placed stu­dents would have to cross gang lines to arrive at their new class­rooms, expos­ing them to vio­lence. But after five school days, there have been no report­ed vio­lent inci­dents involv­ing stu­dents trav­el­ing to their new schools.

Chica­go Teach­ers Union Vice-Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey says that, after the first few days of class, he is most wor­ried about bud­get cuts, not safe passage.

The ques­tion of whether the kid can walk safe­ly for the sev­er­al blocks to the new envi­ron­ment is the most basic of ques­tions,” Sharkey says. The CTU has long argued that cuts to wrap­around” ser­vices such as coun­sel­ing will broad­ly harm student’s safe­ty and well-being.

We laid off 50 coun­selors,” Sharkey says. Coun­selors are sort of the ear­ly warn­ing in the pre­ven­tion sys­tem. They’re the ones who talk to the kids about con­flict before they become fights.”

Although the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion did not offi­cial­ly approve the $5.6 bil­lion bud­get for the 2013 – 14 school year pro­posed by Emanuel and CPS Chief Exec­u­tive Offi­cer Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett until this Wednes­day, most of the budget’s $185 mil­lion in cuts to neigh­bor­hood schools had already gone into effect when doors opened on Mon­day. These includ­ed some 1,500 cuts in teach­ing posi­tions and anoth­er 1,500 staff lay­offs, as well as the 50 school closings.

Some begin­ning-of-the-year ben­e­fits to the remain­ing schools have been report­ed, such as upgrad­ed air con­di­tion­ing (long a demand of the CTU), new libraries and com­put­er labs, and the intro­duc­tion of full-day kinder­garten at all ele­men­tary schools. But with dis­trict-wide stu­dent enroll­ment hold­ing steady this year while teach­ing posi­tions declined, some class sizes have swelled, says Sharkey. Par­ents have called him to com­plain about kinder­garten class­es with more than 30 stu­dents, he says.

Cuts to neigh­bor­hood schools come amid greater invest­ment in most­ly non-union char­ter schools, despite research show­ing mixed results at Illi­nois char­ter schools. Char­ters are expect­ed to receive about an $80 mil­lion, or 17 per­cent, bump in fund­ing this year, accord­ing to a report by the Chica­go-based Cen­ter for Tax and Bud­get Accountability.

A school-by-school bud­get analy­sis by the Chica­go parent’s advo­ca­cy group Raise Your Hands found that 68 ele­men­tary schools lost an art posi­tion, 47 ele­men­tary schools lost a music posi­tion, and 51 ele­men­tary schools and 28 high schools lost a librar­i­an for the 2013 – 2014 year. 

Many schools are turn­ing to pri­vate fundrais­ers to pay for arts pro­grams. Amy Rosen­wass­er, a 5th grade teacher at Pritzk­er Ele­men­tary in the city’s Wick­er Park neigh­bor­hood, said that her school is lean­ing on neigh­bor­hood fundrais­ers and rent­ing the school’s audi­to­ri­um to local church­es in order to make up for bud­get cuts.

Deb­o­rah Koller, the par­ent of a child at Bur­ley Ele­men­tary in the Lake­view neigh­bor­hood, tes­ti­fied about her school’s bud­get trou­bles before the Board of Edu­ca­tion on Wednes­day. We’re pay­ing high­er than ever school fees and con­tin­u­al­ly hav­ing to fundraise … just to con­tin­ue basic pro­grams like art, music, gym and dra­ma,” Koller told board mem­bers dur­ing the meeting’s pub­lic com­ments period.

Wendy Kat­ten of Raise Your Hands asserts that the bud­get sit­u­a­tion is per­haps most dire at schools in poor­er com­mu­ni­ties like Austin on Chicago’s far West Side, where there are less pri­vate fundrais­ing options. I’m hear­ing every­day from par­ents in McNair ele­men­tary in Austin,” Kat­ten says. They cut library and lan­guages and have no music.”

One poten­tial­ly sig­nif­i­cant, but hard to dis­cern, area of bud­get cuts is to spe­cial edu­ca­tion. A report unveiled Tues­day by the Chica­go dis­abil­i­ty rights group Access Liv­ing sim­ply could not deter­mine the reduc­tion in over­all staffing for spe­cial edu­ca­tion instruc­tion. Chid­ing CPS for inter­nal con­fu­sion,” Access Liv­ing says that the fis­cal year bud­get may result in either a 2.5 per­cent or 7.6 per­cent reduc­tion of last years’ 6,446 spe­cial edu­ca­tion positions.

The big­ger ques­tion raised by groups like Access Liv­ing, as well as more polit­i­cal­ly cen­trist orga­ni­za­tions like the Chica­go Civic Fed­er­a­tion, is if CPS will ever devel­op a long-term plan to finance the nation’s third-largest school sys­tem. Over the last few months, in sell­ing the bud­get to the pub­lic, Emanuel and his appoint­ed school offi­cials have repeat­ed­ly argued that CPS is in the throes of a bud­get cri­sis. The cri­sis is due to esca­lat­ing teacher pen­sion pay­ments, Emanuel and CPS offi­cials say, and the prob­lem can only be solved through state leg­is­la­tion cut­ting teacher retire­ment benefits.

The future lies in Spring­field,” said CPS Chief Admin­is­tra­tive Offi­cer Tim Caw­ley said at Wednes­day, ref­er­enc­ing the Illi­nois state capitol.

But any block­buster state leg­is­la­tion cut­ting pen­sion ben­e­fits would result in an almost cer­tain law­suit from CTU, and prob­a­bly every oth­er pub­lic sec­tor union in Illi­nois. The state con­sti­tu­tion express­ly pro­hibits the reduc­tion of con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­at­ed pen­sion payments.

Going for­ward, there are rev­enue gen­er­a­tion options that Emanuel and CTU could con­ceiv­ably work togeth­er on, includ­ing more pro­gres­sive state tax­a­tion, lift­ing the cap on Chica­go prop­er­ty tax­es, and lob­by­ing for more gen­er­al state edu­ca­tion fund­ing. I hope they could do that — I would stand with them to advo­cate for edu­ca­tion fund­ing,” Kat­ten say. But I wor­ry that the rela­tion­ship between the may­or and CTU … is just too toxic.”

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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