CPS holds the line on taxes

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • August 28, 2008 @ 6:30 AM

The Chicago Board of Education approved  a record $6.2 billion budget yesterday while holding the line on property taxes for the first time since 1999.

The budget includes $5.1 billion in operating expenses, an increase of $200 million from the 2007-08 school year. The biggest increases were an additional $50 million for employee benefits, primarily pensions, and $32 million for salary increases.

Overall, the budget is $400 million more than last year.

Instead of requesting a property tax increase to balance the budget, CPS is using $100 million in reserve funds, which earned it high marks from The Civic Federation, a Chicago-based organization that was highly critical of a sales tax hike in Cook County.

"Chicago taxpayers can look forward to a respite from the punishing tax increases of the past year," says Laurence Msall, Civic Federation president, who appeared in front of the board.

"It's a very difficult time that we're looking at, dipping into our funds," says Rufus Williams, board president.

The district will also eliminate 489 jobs, and benefit from state funding that will rise by $98 million. 

Despite that, the district continues to lobby the state for more funds and faces an opening-week schools boycott led by Sen. James Meeks to draw attention to the funding inequities. The district asked the state for a $180 million increase this year.

In all, the district will receive $1.9 billion from the state. Local property taxes will bring $2.2 billion.

According to research compiled by CPS, $9,689 is allocated annually for each student in the city, while allocations in a richer school district such as Evanston are over $19,000 per student. In New York City, more than $15,000 is allocated per student; in Washington D.C., it's $17,000.

"It is staggering how under-funded we are," says Arne Duncan, CPS chief.

Teacher salaries are budgeted at $2 billion, although Chicago Public Schools financial officer Elizabeth Swanson says hiring younger teachers saved some money. The district employs 22,800 teachers and 1,300 principals and assistant principals.

The budget also includes approximately $1 billion for capital-improvement projects, but that wasn't necessarily good news. Heather Obora, chief financial officer for capital projects, says there is a need of $4.5 billion for capital-improvement projects. For the fifth consecutive year, Chicago Public Schools received zero capital-improvement dollars from the state.

"You can only Band-aid schools for so long," Obora says. "We are only going to be compounding the problem as we go on."

That point was driven home at yesterday's board meeting, when parents of children attending Attucks Elementary, 3813 S. Dearborn St., complained that a faulty boiler has closed the building. Children were moved to a school about 1-1/2 miles south.

"We cannot fix the boiler. The expense is too great," Williams says.

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.