Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle listens during a Chicago Board of Education meeting in April at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file
The Board of Education approved a $9.5 billion budget for Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday that establishes new educational priorities for the school system amid the ongoing pandemic, but has faced criticism over some proposed cuts to schools.
The board voted unanimously in passing the spending plan, but members urged further fine-tuning in future years to address communities’ concerns while remaining fiscally responsible as the district faces a financial cliff in three years’ time.
Advocates have criticized CPS for appearing to hold onto $2.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding meant to aide schools through the pandemic. But CPS has consistently said it plans to spend that money over the next three years, as allowed by the government, to ensure students continue to be supported.
“What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we properly invest these funds to give us a runway for three years because we feel we need three years of stability,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez told the board. “Why three years? Because for the last three years we’ve had anything but stability.”
The district has been criticized for cutting some schools’ budgets despite the availability of that federal funding. Officials eventually restored many of those cuts but some schools are still facing decreases in their budgets for next year.
“The current cuts, frankly, in school-level budgets are small,” Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said in his comments to the board. “I want to say they’re about $12 million in a $9 billion budget. So I acknowledge that.
“The reason I raise it is there’s some questions of direction and principle. I think we should be hiring librarians, not laying them off. I think there are a number of schools seeing deep cuts due to low enrollment numbers.”
Martinez said “there’s multiple truths that can be held up at once,” referring to his touting of investments in schools for arts programming and hiring of additional staff while some communities criticize cuts to their schools.
“We have had persistent enrollment declines,” Martinez said. “We don’t see schools that lose enrollment and then all of a sudden gain it back.
“It is a challenge because it does displace staff. Because if the resources don’t follow the students, it creates inequities within our system and even within the same neighborhoods.”
CPS also faced scrutiny this week by the Civic Federation, a taxpayer watchdog group that came out in opposition of the CPS budget because of a 5% property tax hike that amounts to $140 million. The organization called the increase poorly timed as homeowners recover from the pandemic.
“Property taxpayers have already shouldered a significant burden that has helped restore CPS to financial stability,” the group said.
“The federation is well aware that CPS is facing difficult choices ahead as federal funds run out and that it must find recurring sources to close future gaps. However, the district must also be aware of its impact on taxpayers during a time when high rates of inflation are impacting household budgets and property taxes are not tied to a homeowner or business owner’s ability to pay.”