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Mayor Lightfoot has a record $4 billion to transform schools and communities, but CPS budget fails to invest in critical school needs

CPS is set to receive an historic $2.6 billion infusion of federal dollars from three federal funding programs. And the City of Chicago will reap another $2 billion in COVID relief money. Together, that gives Mayor Lightfoot control of a record $4 billion that should be used to transform our schools and communities — while instead only $267 million will make its way directly to our classrooms this year.

Not one school in Austin will have a librarian — and there is only one elementary school librarian on the entire West Side. Across the district, 180 schools will not have a full time nurse this year — in the midst of this century’s worst global pandemic — and 100 schools will not have a full time social worker to deal with the devastating trauma our students have suffered this past year.

Historic resources

“The mayor has access to unprecedented resources that prior Chicago mayors could only dream about,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “She must use those funds for the recovery our students and their families need, and not just from the pandemic, but from all the problems the pandemic has exacerbated: housing and income insecurity, racial disinvestment, unaddressed triggers to violence and decades of educational inequity.”

Now is the time to fully staff and resource Chicago’s public schools, yet the mayor’s budget clearly shows CPS won’t do what’s needed: fast track the vital positions the Union won in our 2019 strike, make critical improvements to buildings, and, at the very least, demonstrate a commitment to making schools better than they were before the pandemic. Even if CPS increased staff to the levels required in our hard-won contract tomorrow, hundreds of schools would still need a full time nurse and social worker. When CPS delays meeting the needs of every single school, the mayor’s hand-picked Board of Education simply exacerbates the harm the pandemic already has caused, even as the resources to mitigate that harm are at last in place.

Schools get just a fraction of federal funds

CPS is budgeting $1.06 billion of federal relief funds for the coming year, with roughly a quarter of it going to school budgets. While schools can use some of the new discretionary money they receive to hire new staff, the vast majority of funding will not lead to new positions. The district could hire a nurse, a social worker, and a librarian in every school this year for only $70 million, just 3 percent of its federal recovery funds.

When confronted with the paltry amount going toward new staff, CPS Board President Miguel del Valle said CPS is facing a “financial cliff” and used that as an excuse for failing to meet student needs.

“Thanks to the $2 billion in federal funding, CPS could have a social worker, a nurse and a counselor in every school next year for a fraction of the usual cost,” Sharkey said. “But the mayor’s answer to the families she serves remains ‘no’.”

A bandage, not a recovery

The district also is using the federal funding to support so-called “Equity Grants” to high-needs schools and additional dollars for schools losing enrollment during the pandemic year. But schools have already suffered budget cuts for nearly a decade under former mayor Rahm Emanuel’s racist ‘Student Based Budgeting’ formula, and in some cases those grants have barely covered the cuts from just one year, much less historical funding loss. This funding is at best a bandage on a gaping wound, not a recovery budget.

The pandemic demonstrated the crucial safety need for air quality and ventilation improvements in our schools — in a school district that has a pent-up backlog of $2 billion in facilities repairs. CPS has allocated about $100 million in federal funds for air quality upgrades. While that may sound like a lot, nearly 300 schools need repairs — but only 17 schools will actually get them.

Given how the pandemic disproportionately impacted students with special needs, improving services and updating buildings to make them accessible is crucial. While CPS brags about adding special education dollars to school budgets, SPED services are still recovering from the draconian cuts leveled in 2016, for which the district is still under state oversight. While some schools may see an increase, those funds at best catch up to baseline service needs — even as reporting in August 2021 shows that the District continues to shortchange special needs students.

That includes conditions at more than 400 CPS schools that still fail to comply with one of the nation’s most groundbreaking civil rights laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act — over three decades after the ADA became law. The pandemic has only intensified the need to address barriers to our school communities for students, families and educators — yet CPS’ proposed budget addresses needs in only 33 of those school communities. We could make every school community ADA-compliant for less than one third of CPS’ pandemic relief funds.

We can’t return to business as usual

For years, the mayor’s hand-picked board of education has dictated the terms of our schools’ support — and for decades our schools have suffered under the lashes of austerity, indifference and the racist consequences of systemic inequity.

“A budget is a set of priorities and CPS’ priorities are crystal clear,” Sharkey said. “Rather than investing in the transformation our students and their school communities need, the mayor wants to return to business as usual. That wasn’t acceptable before the pandemic and it’s unacceptable now.”

Pavlyn Jankov is an Education Policy Analyst at CTU