This past July, in a media briefing on the financial problems plaguing the Chicago Public Schools system, Mayor Rahm Emanuel repeated an oft-mentioned claim: That under his regime, CPS had cut around $1 billion from the agency’s budget.
But a review by the Better Government Association suggests that Emanuel’s claim may be inflated – part of a shell game played by the Emanuel administration to cast a more positive, though misleading, light on the budgetary and educational goings-on at CPS.
The BGA asked many months ago for a breakdown of the cuts used to justify the $1 billion figure, but CPS refused to provide records or answer many questions.
However, the BGA ended up obtaining a CPS summary report of the cuts from another source, and between those records and other research, CPS made incorrect or questionable claims. For instance, the district claimed $42 million in savings from special education cuts, $17 million in savings by firing janitors and privatizing cleaning with Aramark, and $13 million in savings by “reducing Chicago Police Department expense.”
Despite saying the district cut the cost for police expense, the Emanuel Administration actually increased spending. From 2011 through 2015, CPS paid the police more than $100 million – double what was spent in the previous five years under Emanuel’s predecessor, former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
With Aramark, CPS miscounted square footage to be cleaned, so the school system had to pony up more money and much of the $17 million in savings was wiped out. CPS officials say they expect to realize financial benefits in coming years.
With special education, CPS has acknowledged the $42 million was based on a “flawed formula,” and the agency ended up adding special education teachers and aides – and saving nothing.
Beyond those examples, CPS records are vague about other reported cuts and savings – so what comprised the rest of Emanuel’s $1 billion figure wasn’t clear. One citation from the summary report – “rationalize central office administrative support areas” – indicates $10 million in savings, but there’s no other information, and CPS officials wouldn’t elaborate.
The summary report also mentions $14 million in savings relating to “information and technology.” But the CPS unit handling information and technology saw spending soar from $27 million in 2011 to nearly $80 million last school year, budgetary records show.
Also part of the $1 billion cited by Emanuel: $13 million in transportation-related savings coming from a change in school start times this year, according to records and interviews. But some start times were changed back amid an uproar from parents, and now CPS claims just $5 million will be saved.
A CPS spokeswoman said that CPS stands behind the $1 billion figure, chiding the BGA for not focusing instead on what CPS believes is inequitable state education funding.
Related Article: CPS Revises Grad Rates After BGA/WBEZ Report
Annual CPS revenue is roughly $5 billion and the school system is facing a projected budget deficit of at least $480 million.
A CPS spokeswoman said the deficit would be even higher if not for Emanuel’s $1 billion in cuts.
A recent CPS consultant report mentions there indeed were massive budget cuts reported during Emanuel’s tenure, but they were described as “unaudited.”
Forrest Claypool, Emanuel’s handpicked CEO of CPS who started in the job in July, doesn’t use the $1 billion figure and, when asked about it recently, didn’t defend it, saying he won’t opine on what happened before his tenure.
Rod Estvan is an education policy analysis for the disability rights group Access Living, and he does a yearly review of the CPS budget. His take: “It is like an ameba, every time it shrinks, it just grows.”
Case in point: In August, Claypool announced he was cutting $1 million in positions in central office, CPS’ bureaucracy.
Then, in the following months, Claypool brought 10 new people into headquarters, including many of his trusted friends from his previous post at the CTA.
CPS now has a landing page on its website that lists position cuts, but not additions.
CPS also changes names of departments or lists them differently in its budget, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to track the workforce.
Claypool – who recently revised graduation rates because they had been calculated with faulty information, as pointed out in a BGA/WBEZ investigation – promised this month to “take tens of millions of dollars out of the central office bureaucracy” and shrink “the administrative footprint of the district.”
He added: “We have to make sure that . . . every dollar needs to go into the classroom so we have a more efficient system, one that spends less money.”
Asked this month whether the upcoming round of central office budget cuts will result in true savings, Claypool said: “We will provide you all the information and you can make your own judgment,” he said.