Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CPS CEO | Chandler West/Sun-Times file
CPS finds money to plug $800 million hole in 2015 budget
Update: CPS has released its FY15 budget. Read an overview below.
Pinning its problems on pension woes, Chicago Public Schools said Wednesday it found yet another one-time solution to fill a vast deficit in its $5.76 billion 2015 budget, this time expanding the calendar year in which the district will collect property tax revenue.
Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the district will count about $650 million of property tax revenue expected to arrive in August 2015 toward this fiscal year to plug the bulk of its $876.3 million deficit — and to cover about $647 million in pension requirements.
“The change in the way in which we recognize revenue enables us to balance FY15 budget but it’s a one-time fix,” Byrd-Bennett said during a Wednesday afternoon conference call presenting her budget proposal. “Our financial challenges continue to loom over us. This one-time action is not going to address our structural deficit and we just continue to tackle it, but we’ve got to receive pension reform from Springfield.”
The rest of the deficit plug, Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro said, will come from “one-time reserves” from spending less in fiscal year 2014 than expected. Instead of using $640 million in reserves last year, the district needed just $430 million, she said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has in the past condemned his predecessor’s use of one-time revenues to patch the city’s budget crisis and stave off what he calls a “day of reckoning.”
But his appointed schools chief said the budget that will cover his re-election year keeps cuts out of classrooms, cutting instead $55 million from central spending for a total of $740 million since 2011 when the mayor took office. CPS also cut 20 central office jobs, though it could not specify if that number included new hires such as the new chief of English Learner Programs approved in May. About $4.8 billion will go directly to schools, they said, briefing reporters with a PowerPoint presentation.
“Despite financial challenges, we’ve got students to educate and we remain committed to ensuring every child has access to a high-quality educational program,” Byrd-Bennett said.
According to the budget, posted at www.cps.edu at 7:45 p.m., CPS wants to cut spending in departments that oversee special education, and charter schools, and the office of strategic school supports services which helps certain neighborhood schools. The district also is bulking up the law department, the accountability department that oversees testing and ratings, and the departments that oversee math and literacy.
According to CPS, the 2015 budget, which spends about 3 percent more than 2014, expands the Safe Passage program that posts community workers around schools and paths to schools by about $1 million.
And it encompasses projects already announced this spring, including:
◆ $13 million for 84 more arts and 84 more physical education teachers being added after criticism about unfunded mandates.
◆ $70 million — about $250 more per pupil — to cover teacher raises mandated under the CTU contract.
◆ $4.5 million for seven new campuses geared toward getting at-risk students a high school diploma.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called the spending plan Emanuel’s “re-election budget.”
The budget is full of Emanuel’s school priorities, including five new International Baccalaureate feeder schools and a new Barack Obama selective enrollment high school.
“Every single thing that this guy does until February is going to be a re-election spin,” she said.
She added,“They’ve miraculously lengthened the year.”
Lewis said she recalls “one-time fixes” going back to at least 2001 — years before the current pension woes.
“I think there’s got to be a time where people actually sit down and do some real serious discussion about what priorities are,” she said. “We have always said budgets are moral documents and they actually present your priorities. We’re still not clear what the district’s priorities are.”
Sarah Wetmore, vice president and research director for the Civic Federation, said the district is “propping up the ’15 budget with money for the following year,” which could be risky.
“If Cook County for whatever reason doesn’t get the tax bills out on time next year, [CPS] could fall short of their revenues,” Wetmore said. And the district isn’t making any structural fixes, she said.
“CPS is still in significant financial difficulty,” Wetmore said. “While they’re avoiding significant cuts, maybe to classrooms with this budget, they are still going to be in a very, very difficult situation next year when they face over $1 billion deficit and it remains to be seen how they’re going to come up with the money to close it.”
The Board of Education is expected to vote on the budget at the end of July. CPS has not yet scheduled mandatory public budget hearings.