CN May 4 2017

CPS is enduring yet another of its “how-can-we keep-going-without-a-huge cash-infusion crises, except that, instead of its usual fall timing, this is a separate crisis just to figure out how it’ll finish the school year. The total amount needed this time? About 130 million or so.

Our panel this week says the CPS budget folk are searching even deeper than usual into the couch cushions for those extra millions.  Will they find them? Will Rahm Emanuel let the schools close on June 1 instead of June 20, despite the fact that he’s been claiming that the State’s failure to come up with money he says they promised would force an early closure? You know the answer. He and Forrest Claypool will find that $130m somewhere.

And, as you’ll see if you read toward the bottom of this post, today’s guests are strongly convinced that the Barbara Byrd-Bennett saga isn’t over, and that there could be more indictments to come.

That panel? Lauren FitzPatrick from the Sun-Times. Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea from WBEZ. We start by examining the $215 million that CPS thought Governor Rauner had agreed to pay. There was even legislation authorizing it. But it was tied to “pension reform,” and when the Guv said there had been no reform, he vetoed the money. But Claypool and co. had baked the money into the CPS budget already, and the crisis was fully formed.

“We all grilled them about how can you say this budget is balanced when you don’t have this $215-million in hand?” FitzPatrick explains. “But the alternative was they would have had to build a budget without it at the beginning of the schoolyear, and $215-million pays for a lot of teachers, a lot of programs, a lot of things that make school wonderful places to go and that goes toward like a quality education for kids. I mean maybe they were playing chicken all along, but that would have been tough to swallow at the beginning of the year, and they would have had to have eaten it themselves. It would have been on them. And now they’ve got a bad guy in Rauner and the State.”

Whether their political tactic will succeed and the public will lay the blame for this mess at Bruce Rauner’s doorstep is anybody’s guess. But Karp says so many parents felt caught in the middle and they’re mad. Mad, probably, at everybody.

“Most of the parents I talk to feel like right now they were in the middle of a big game and their children were the pawns and they are not happy, and they are mad at Claypool. I mean yes, they are mad at Rauner, but Rauner just seems like generally he’s just…you know he’s not doing anything. So what is happening with the politicians that you look right up to? And I feel like a lot of people are saying like what the hell just happened…So, we went through this whole song and dance and now they are like, ‘Oh, forget it. We actually aren’t going to cancel the school year.’ It’s like, what is going on here?”

“It was this “pension reform” which no one was ever able to articulate, like what were they actually supposed to accomplish,” adds FitzPatrick. “So even if you were a parent who wanted to make calls or write letters or go to Springfield, as CPS has been encouraging them to do, like what in the world were you encouraging? What were you standing up for? There was no bill. There was no specific language. It was just – we need pension reform…I can’t imagine how angry parents are who felt like they were caught in the middle of like… You know, the City made this threat that they never intended to make good on, and it threw a lot of people into a tizzy about what the heck are you going to do with your kids for three whole weeks?”

Becky Vevea injects a dose of budget reality at this point.  The $215 million hole (which has been cut to about 130 million because of cuts the system made a few months ago) is not about books and lunches and classrooms. It’s about pensions. And that colossal bill is due in a few weeks. CPS’ share is 721 million dollars.

“And so they’ve got (about) 600 of it,” Vevea reports. “It’s just a matter of we’ve got to look under the couch cushions or figure out some credit we can take out, and this is where the whole borrowing question comes in again. Short-term borrowing and can they bridge the gap to give the fund the cash it needs on time that it’s supposed to pay it without any penalties or interest.”

And one of those couch cushions is the individual school budgets which, for myriad reasons get spent on different schedules, and pity the poor principal who has money in the bank when the budget sweepers start nosing through the digital files.

“Principals all got locked out of spending on May 1st,” Vevea tells us, “So they are bracing for a big sweep of the accounts.”

“Which is funny,” interjects Fitzpatrick, “Because a couple of years ago you wanted to be squirreling away as much money as possible, so that when CPS took your teachers you had some money to keep your staff in place, except you had money in place and they came in and vacuumed half of it up.”

And, as Sarah Karp points out, the school system also has to deal with its steadily dropping enrollment.  “That’s hurting Chicago public schools’ budget, and so there’s like this double whammy. We still have these huge debt payments. We still have this, we still have that, and we’re losing money because we’re losing students, so it does make a very difficult budget picture.”

And, in the face of these issues, CPS continues to spend heavily on new  schools and school additions. And it continues to open new charter schools.

“Charters are a lot,” says FitzPatrick. “But then the Dyett High School reopened and is beautiful and all those programs are fabulous, but now that’s another school with added capacity and there are 11,000 fewer kids in the district than last year.”

“The district is shrinking,” asserts Vevea. “It’s constricting. It’s becoming smaller and they need to figure out a way to manage. You would think logically as you get smaller your budget shouldn’t continue to grow…I think that managing that is not a politically fun thing for anyone to do, but it goes back to school closings. The moratorium is going to be lifting. We closed 50 schools in 2013. That was five years ago and they said we are not going to close schools for five years. Well, it’s been five years. I think there’s going to be that question coming up too about how much do we need.”

“And some high schools are going away,” adds FitzPatrick.

Speaking of high schools, there is a dramatic change on the horizon. Education chief Janice Jackson has announced a unified High School application. “It’s an application that all eighth graders will fill out, every single one of them,” Vevea explains. “Right now you only elect to do it, and many have criticized that that draws the most motivated families, the wealthiest, most affluent people who can take the time to go visit schools and submit all these applications. Now every eighth grader will have to do it. They will rank one in eight I think, eight schools, one through eight and they will plug that into an algorithm, and every kid will get a match.”

“It’s a total choice, a total choice,” Karp asserts. “It’s a choice system and it’s totally… I mean yes, we’re keeping neighborhood high schools, but everybody applying means that we’re going into total choice for our high school system.”

“Everybody will get a match and then you can accept that match, or you can enter it again and get a second match,” Vevea continues. “If you reject both of your matches then you go to the school your address is assigned to, so your neighborhood high school.”

And here’s where it gets really interesting.  Vevea points out that the process will generate a rich dataset that will tell policymakers what schools rank where. A voluntary compendium of information about how well parents and students think schools are doing.

“And my understanding,” says FitzPatrick, “Is you’re not even necessarily applying to just the whole school, you are applying to maybe special programs that are within the school. So there might be a school that overall on the whole doesn’t seem to be impressive by its numbers, but they’ve got something special going on inside that building that has amazing graduation rates that’s doing spectacular things with kids. So I mean I think that’s where the surprises are going to pop out, these little…program within the building situations.”

And what about the charter high schools? Where do they fit in?

“Well, not all of them are in right now,” FitzPatrick reports. “Several have volunteered and said, ‘Great, we’re in,’ and the issues with the charters is each charter chain has a different application process…Janice Jackson has said she is going to work with the willing first, the coalition of the willing, and then she’s going to sweet talk a little bit. And then ultimately it sounds like she wants to use the charters’ renewal process to coerce any stragglers to join this so that, I mean how many years could that be?”

“It’s written into their contracts,” Vevea interjects.

“Four or five years at the most it sounds like everyone will be in,” FitzPatrick predicts..

We ask what effect, if any, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration might have in Chicago and Illinois. Can they get vouchers implemented here? FitzPatrick has  a startling prediction.

“This is where the district and the charters have common ground.”

Any effort to implement vouchers here, which would allow parents to opt into parochial or private schools, could drive the often-squabbling district-run schools and charters into one another’s arms.

“I don’t know that I necessarily see this happening in Chicago any time soon,” FitzPatrick continues, “Because really, if you think about the families that would grab at vouchers in Chicago I have to think the first ones are dedicated proud charter parents, and then what happens to the charter schools?”

“I think that it can be a bit of a hype in some ways,” adds Vevea, “because I think that people also don’t realize that vouchers don’t… It’s not like they’re covering lab school tuition, and … even archdiocese tuition, depending on which school you’re picking, I mean we have yet to see what the federal government decides to do on this part of things. I mean we have yet to see if they move forward on it and what the amount ends up being, if there is an amount.”

The reality is that the government check won’t cover all the tuition, so it could have a perverse effect in which affluent parents just get some help paying a hefty private-school tuition, but poor parents who can’t make up the difference don’t get to participate.

Finally, the sentencing of Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Since all three panelists were intricately involved in covering Byrd-Bennet’s tenure and her corruption charges, the conversation between them was animated and revealing. It starts at 46:30 on the video. They report that the former CEO ran from the courthouse after her sentencing. “I don’t think she’s ever run that fast,” observes Karp.

“One thing I keep saying is that I think that there is going to be more to this story.,” Karp asserts. “I think the inspector general will come out with something. I think there will be some other companies implicated in some various ways. I mean Becky and I did a story about how this one company that runs alternative schools was vendor A in her indictment and they are still getting money in Chicago. They are still around. They are also getting tied up with all the black pastors in the City who are very politically connected. I think the point is that she maybe was willing to play ball, and so the other companies that were willing to also play ball…”

“I agree with what Sarah is saying in that I think there’s a lot more to this story and that there are a lot of layers to peel back on,” Vevea adds. “Not just this one company and this one superintendent, but all of the companies that do business with the school district, and all of the people who go in and out of positions, both inside the school districts that they work with and into the companies that then they go work for…I think that what I saw with this and what I feel like happens in the world of education with all these companies feels a lot like with the banks and the regulators, and them going in and out of these revolving doors, and taking positions and climbing ladders that require you to bounce between two entities that really ought to be policed better. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity in there that Barbara just got caught.”

And in the realm of pure speculation, did Barbara Byrd-Bennett feel safe in her crooked activities because she felt the Mayor owed it to her once she was good soldier and close the city schools the mayor insisted she close? you be the judge.

Pretend we’re on the radio as you toss in the earbuds and listen on SoundCloud.

You can read a full transcript of this show HERE:CN Transcript May 4 2017



About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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