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CTU budget trainings educate, empower members to challenge budget priorities, advocate for school needs

LSC members learn how to read school budget information, like how much of the money is in student based budgeting.

CTU Policy Analyst Sarah Rothschild is on a mission. She wants CTU members to understand their school budgets and use the budget process to win the resources our students need. And, she’s working on that mission one school at a time.

Rothschild holds dozens of budget trainings every year where she walks members through the budget process, helps them analyze their school’s budget line items and understand the best way to advocate for what members and students need. Her message is a simple one.

Exercise your power

“Nothing happens in a school without the budget,” she said. “Budgets make or break any school initiative. Even with the terrible student-based budgeting, declining enrollment and all the other problems in CPS, there are opportunities to exercise your power through the budget process.”

With CPS set to receive some $2 billion in pandemic relief funds this year, it is more important than ever for CTU members to get involved in their school’s budget process.

“It’s not enough to be up in arms about the decisions that come down from the district or your administration,” she said. “We need to be activating our PPLCs, engaging our LSCs and building coalitions with parents and community members.”

One of the most powerful statutory authorities of LSCs is to approve the school budget. By law, LSCs are subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act so all meetings must be open to the public, with the time, date and agenda of the meeting posted in advance. And school budgets are public documents. Your LSC and administration must provide them to you upon request.

PPLC power

The PPLC — or Professional Personnel Leadership Committee — consists of certified classroom teachers and staff. It handles curriculum, school budgeting, school improvement and professional development. It also serves as an advisory committee to the LSC so it can be a powerful tool to guide budget discussions and decisions.

The first thing to understand about a school’s budget, Rothschild explained at a recent training, is that CPS only funds the principal, clerk, counselor and lunchroom staff. Other administrative positions, like an assistant principal or an attendance coordinator, are funded out of the school’s discretionary funding. If a school has two assistant principals but no math or reading coach, that is a decision made by the principal with the consent of the LSC.

Rothschild notes that a lot of money received by schools is restricted, such as special education funds, but the per student dollars from CPS are not. The school decides how to spend that money. And that’s where school staff can make an impact.

A moral document

“A budget is a moral document. It’s a set of priorities,” Rothschild said at one recent budget training. “If your school’s budget doesn’t reflect the priorities of the staff, you can organize and pressure the administration and LSC to make changes.”

At each training, Rothschild walks through the general CPS budget categories and how to access them online. Then she pulls up the actual budget for the school she is assisting and walks through that document line by line. Members also learn how to find out which schools have funding for programs that they want to bring to their schools so they can begin the process of advocating for the programs.

She also shows members how to find the employee position file and recommends they compare the document to the actual staff in the school. If a position listed in the budget is vacant, that position needs to be filled or, if the LSC deems the position no longer necessary, then the money can and should be freed up for other uses.

“Even though these are public documents, CPS does not make it easy to access the budget information,” she said. “I spend my days poring over the budget and sometimes I still have difficulty finding what I’m looking for.”

Knowledge is power

Uplift Community High School science teacher Karen Zaccor found a recent budget training both educational and empowering. Northside Action for Justice, a CTU community partner, organized the training and invited three of the neighborhood schools to attend. After the training, Zaccor realized she hadn’t received all the documents she needed to make decisions about the budget. But she felt knowledgeable enough to request the information and ultimately received it.

Rothschild downloaded and explained a huge amount of information at the training, Zaccor said. But she also provided instructions on how members could generate information themselves, so they can analyze and track funds throughout the year.

“Sarah has so much information to share and she is so generous with her time,” Zaccor said. “One of the points Sarah makes that really hits home to me is that a budget is a statement of priorities. That led me to challenge some of our school’s spending decisions and, while we ended up approving the budget more or less as presented, it allowed us to begin to lay some groundwork for future challenges. Having the tools to do our own analysis, and honestly knowing that Sarah will help us out when we have questions, will allow us to be much better prepared for next year’s budget meeting.”

Organize, organize, organize

Being able to analyze your school’s budget is critical, but it is not enough to make change. Rothschild recommends members approach work on the budget the same way we approach other Union work: organize the staff in your building and create alliances with parents and community members.

“Remember, the principal is the instructional leader and runs the school. But the principal only gets one vote,” she said. “The more you involve your parents and the community the more everyone in the school benefits.”

To organize a budget training at your school, reach out to Rothschild at SarahRothschild@ctulocal1.org.