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As he heads into an election year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is proposing big school spending and he’s painting a rosy picture of the school system’s financial outlook. But here are five things that taxpayers, school staff, and parents should know about the budget before it is set in stone:
- An open-ended fund? There’s a huge pot of unallocated money baked into the budget that Emanuel and school district officials can apparently use any way they want. In fact, they are already using it. Bobby Otter, budget director for the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Tax Accountability, said it is prudent for a public school system as big as Chicago’s to have a contingency fund, but questions why it is so large. Further, he notes that in budget documents, there is no way to track how leaders plan to spend it or how it was spent in previous years.
Additional social workers and case managers may be an empty promise. It is unclear if there is real money to fund the contingency budget. District officials said the contingency budget is allocated “when revenue materializes throughout the year.” But they said the revenue for the additional social worker and case manager positions is “assured.” When asked to prove it in the budget, officials didn’t respond.
Another question mark in the budget. The school district does not have firm plans set out in the budget for how it is going to get the money needed to complete all the promised building, renovation, and repairs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a massive plan earlier this month, committing to build three new schools, four additions, fix or provide new boilers and roofs for dozens of schools, and upgrade technology and science labs.
Deficit spending, debt, and pensions still burden the budget. In order to balance the $5.9 billion day-to-day operating budget this year, the school district plans to use $62 million from reserves. That means it is dipping into its already depleted savings account. Otter said this is the seventh year in a row that the school district is spending more than it is bringing in.
Fewer students, but increased spending. Despite the looming budget problems, almost every department in Chicago Public Schools is getting more money and positions. The school district is also creating two new departments, one to focus on equity and the other to investigate and handle sexual harassment and bullying between students. Meanwhile, the school district’s enrollment continues to go down. Last year, the school district had about 10,000 fewer students than the year before. And over the past five years, it is down more than 30,000 students.