Candidates call on state to analyze how CPS funds are being spent
Illinois’ General State Aid (GSA) funds K-12 education and was originally intended to financially support school districts with the most need. Through the years, however, the formulas used to calculate the amount of state funding school districts receive has sparked outrage over the funding system providing large subsidies to a few select districts, namely, Chicago Public Schools.
“A lot of the students in the Chicago school system seem to be falling behind and the teachers (who) are teaching them -- and I am definitely for teachers; I am a teacher myself,” Benjamin Salzberg, the Republican candidate vying for the Senate seat for District 29, told the Lake County Gazette. “But it seems like the whole structure needs to be looked at for (the) Chicago school system... . We need to correct the whole environment the Chicago school system is based on because it doesn’t seem like those dollars are being given properly to educate our students in Chicago.”
In 2013, most of the $500 million-plus in special state education subsidies related to property wealth was appropriated to just 40 of the 102 districts in Illinois. All of the districts that received the funds were in Cook County and its collar counties. Chicago alone received more than $280 million while downstate districts received a mere 3 percent of the $500 million.
The formulas used to determine which individuals qualify as poor have broadened, resulting in the state recognizing thousands more students as low-income and placing a heftier burden on the state’s budget. In 2000, just under $300 million from the GSA went toward supporting low-income children. By 2013, Illinois was spending an astounding $1.8 billion to support low-income students.
Salzberg said the money doesn’t seem to be affecting the overall education of Chicago students, which is a big problem, he added.
“So we have to see (whether) these dollars that Chicago seems to be spending are going for financial problems in Chicago because all of the administrators are getting (a) lot of money,” Salzberg said. “Teachers: Are they getting the money they need to teach the students properly? The curriculum they need? Being able to have a nice setting in the classroom to be able to teach?”
Since 1998, Chicago teachers’ salaries have increased by 80 percent, resulting in Chicago teachers receiving the highest lifetime salaries among school districts comparable in size across the nation.
CPS reportedly spent more than $1.2 billion on teacher pension pickups over the past decade, enacted pension holidays that diverted close to $3 billion originally intended to fund pensions toward school salaries instead and allowed a 400 percent growth in accrued teacher pension benefits since 1987. Now CPS is on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its financial obligations.
In the midst of its financial crisis, Chicago Sun-Times reported that CPS spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on fast food last year – more than $150,000 on pizza and more than $200,000 on Subway sandwiches.
According to CPS, it spent $2.9 million on food from outside vendors between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015, of which nearly $1.5 million was authorized by the district’s central office. CPS indicated, however, that over a third of the money could not be accounted for due to the spending lacking detail or being miscoded, Chicago Sun-Times reported.
"I am not in favor of the taxpayers from outside of Chicago bailing out the Chicago Public School System," Martin “Marty” Blumenthal, Republican candidate for Senate District 58, told the Lake County Gazette. "CPS is in a financial mess of their own doing. Any state funds that are available to other school districts should be distributed to those in actual need-not to reward financial mismanagement and incompetency."
CPS’ ill repute causes talented teachers to shy away from working in Chicago, Salzberg said.
“The best teachers are not going to want to come to the CPS system to educate our children considering all the financial uncertainty," he said. "Talented educators will go to other school districts where they feel they will have the largest impact with their career. This situation is similar to our newly graduated high school seniors who will be choosing out-of-state universities where their program of choice is properly funded.”
In May, House Speaker Michael Madigan proposed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that included a CPS bailout by increasing its subsidies.
Madigan’s plan sought an additional $500 million appropriation for target school districts and an additional $75 million for early childhood education.
The proposed budget passed the House, but did not fare well in the Senate.
Forrest Claypool, CEO of CPS, has also sought to increase state funding for the district by calling for the state to appropriate 20 percent of its education spending to CPS since CPS students account for 20 percent of the state’s enrollment.
In a February interview for Chicago Tonight, Claypool said that CPS students are “being discriminated against in a radical, radical way.”
But some believe Claypool is simply attempting to guilt the state into bailing out Chicago, which doesn’t offer a long-term solution to the district’s debacle.
“While more funding for the CPS and state university program will help, we also need to look at how the current funds are being spent,” Salzberg said. “We need to make sure that the current funding for our schools is being spent efficiently to have the biggest return for taxpayer’s money through quality education for our children.”
Salzberg used an analogy to explain why throwing more money at the district through the current system will be a waste.
“If we have a pipe with a leak in it, pushing more water (funding) through the pipe will increase the amount of water coming out of the other end, but also increase the water that spills through the leak," he said. "To fix the problems we have in our schools, we need to look at how the money is being currently spent and evaluate the need for additional funding so we can get our children into the best schools and prepare them for a successful future."