Budget cuts roil local schools

By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Staff Writer

Public schools in Hyde Park held community meetings last week to discuss their sharply reduced preliminary budgets for the 2013-2014 school year. An all-schools meeting was also held by the parent group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Education. The group is demanding that Mayor Rahm Emanuel return tax increment financing district (TIF) money to Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Principals have been given greater responsibility over spending at their schools and were careful to show the community the financial constraints they were working under for next school year; a tight budget that will lead to teacher and program cuts.

The budget at Bret Harte, 1556 E. 56th St., was cut by $100,000; Murray’s budget, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave., was cut by $200,000; Ray’s, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., was cut by $400,000; Reavis’, 834 E. 50th St., was cut by $350,000; Kozminski’s, 936 E. 54th St., was cut by $250,000 and Kenwood Academy High School’s, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., was cut by $1.7 million.

In addition to the cuts both Ray and Bret Harte have to stretch their smaller budgets even further to accommodate their newly added 7th grade classes, part of a phase-out of Canter Middle School, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave. At their respective meetings, principals from both schools went line-by-line explaining how the cuts would affect the next school year.

Expenses such as principal, clerk, special education teacher and counselor salaries were deducted from the amount given to each school so the principal was left to work with the balance. Teachers’ salaries, a portion of substitute salaries and janitorial supplies such as wax, tissue and mop heads all must come from each school’s budget, which for some schools have been cut by up to 50 percent.

Local schools budget

“We don’t want to compromise the integrity of the school and its students,” said Toni Hill, principal at Ray, who made class size and reducing and eliminating split classes a priority in budget planning.

The budget includes three teachers at each grade level and a “departmental” structure for the 6th and 7th grades. The school will also retain its gym and art classes. Although CPS funded only one language teacher based on its new per pupil funding method, the LSC used money from its discretionary budget to keep Ray’s second language teaching position.

In order to reduce or eliminate splits, LSC members voted to cut music for next school year and expected funds for the librarian position may need to be repurposed to cover a third kindergarten teacher.

LSC member Don Willard said he was expecting more of an uproar from the parents and community members that attended the meeting Wednesday evening.
Many attendees did express their concerns about some of the cuts being made but most seemed sympathetic to the tight budget that the school had to work with.

Jane Averill, a teacher at Ray, said it would be sad to see the arts curriculum get cut.

“Music, art and language are so important. It is heartbreaking to see them thrown out of the window after we worked so hard to get them,” Averill said.

Leslie Travis, librarian at Ray, said it is very sad that the librarian position is considered a luxury and may be altered next school year.

“Not having a librarian position at the school next year would be a travesty,” said Travis, who announced her retirement earlier this month. “A media specialist is not going to offer quality literary instruction, but I know this change is being brought on by the CPS budget.”

LSC member Joy Clendenning questioned whether the LSC should reject the offer being made by CPS and refuse to vote on a plan.

LSC member Bill Schmidt said a “do no harm” approach would be best.

“This is the best strategy possible now so [Hill] can hire new teachers over the summer,” Schmidt said. “We should vote on this one and then we can reconvene from there.”

Bret Harte Principal Shenethe Parks discussed the school’s preliminary budget at its regular LSC meeting Thursday evening. Parks said her strategy was to drop last year’s budget into the one for next year and work her way backwards until it was balanced.

The loss of the librarian position was also a sore spot for the council. Bret Harte Library/Media Center Teacher Mary Geroulis made an attempt to plead the case for keeping the position open but Parks said because of the tight budget her hands were tied.

“Some people may not understand but tough decisions were made to in order to keep as many positions as possible,” Parks said.

The librarian/media center position, which included literary and computer education instruction, will be replaced with a reading and math intervention class, and creative writing and other literary-based courses will take place in the library.

In anticipation of the laptops and iPads that CPS promised to the school, Bret Harte is already planning to deeply imbed technology into the curriculum.

Faith Mitchell, 4th grade math and science teacher at Bret Harte, said using technology in the classroom on a regular basis is a great supplement to books and will improve the quality of instruction.

“When I give students projects to work on it would be better for them to pull up current information from the web instead of using books that are old and dated,” said Mitchell, who added that since teachers often have to share resources and the wait time to get what they need can adversely affect instruction.

She said it would also help take stress off of the teachers because students could use the laptops and iPads to work more independently.

Both schools have been promised building upgrades, including air conditioners, laptops for 3rd to 5th grade classes and iPads for 6th to 7th grade classes and classroom upgrades, including tuck pointing, white boards and security cameras. Also, Chief Area Office John Price said he would take $20,000 from his budget to help build a middle school science lab for Ray and $15,000 for a middle school science lab at Bret Harte.

Raise Your Hand

At the all-schools meeting hosted by Raise Your Hand for Education Illinois Thursday night at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave., parents from across the city met to discuss short-term and long-term ways they could advocate for more funding for all Chicago Public Schools.

“We are not accepting these cuts, we cannot start the school year with this budget,” said Wendy Katten, director of Raise Your Hand.

The group is especially incensed about the use of TIF funds for what they consider private entities such as the $55 million that are being used to build a stadium for DePaul University and $5.2 million that was used to build the new Harper Court development.

In the short-term, the group, which held a rally Friday downtown at the Thompson Center 100 W. Randolph St., is demanding that Emanuel call for a TIF surplus. If the mayor were to declare a surplus, 53 percent of the tax money that is allocated to TIFs would be returned, and part of that return could be used to increase the school budget.

Raise Your Hand member Jennie Biggs said statewide tax reform is needed to help improve the public school budget in the long term.

“For many years only 3 percent of state taxes were allocated to schools. It has now been bumped up to 5 percent,” Biggs said. “Illinois currently owes $8 billion to the public school system.”

Raise Your Hand is working to get a referendum on the ballot in 2014 to find out if the public wants a graduated income tax program, which would change how public schools are funded in Illinois.

d.phillips@hpherald.com