Crunch Time for Chicago Public Schools

Watch the video: New CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, and Janice Jackson, the new chief education officer for CPS, join us to discuss the district's budget and other challenges facing the nation's third-largest school district.

Students return to classes in about a month, and it still remains uncertain how Chicago Public Schools will plug a $1.1 billion deficit. But the district hopes help will come this week from Illinois lawmakers.

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As soon as Tuesday, Senate President John Cullerton could call a vote on a measure freeing up $500 million a year for CPS.

Cullerton’s plan changes how much money the district pays into teachers' pensions and requires the state to pick up some of the costs. It also calls for a committee to find ways to overhaul state funding of education.

But that plan is just one of many steps CPS and elected officials must take to help the district find a financial foothold.

“We can’t protect the academic gains we’ve had in the last few years under Mayor Emanuel unless we fix the finances,” CPS CEO Forrest Claypool told Carol Marin on Chicago Tonight. “We don’t want to go backwards, we want to continue going forwards, so fixing the finances of the district is priority one.

“When you have a sudden $700 million mandate -- almost out of the blue -- for pensions, which no other district has to deal with, and the declining trend in education, it is a pincer move. It is devastating.”

Below, more highlights from Carol Marin’s discussion about the budget and other challenges facing the nation's third-largest school district with Claypool, and Janice Jackson, the new chief education officer for CPS. Please note that questions and answers have been condensed. Watch the video for the complete discussion.

Carol Marin: If Cullerton's plan fails, what's plan B?

Forrest Claypool: There has to be some resolution to this obviously, otherwise the results for our classrooms and our kids will be catastrophic.

We need a partnership with Springfield. Chicago is the only school district in the state of Illinois that has to fund its teacher pensions. ... We alone take money out of the classroom -- more than a billion dollars in the last two years alone -- to fund teacher pensions. That is an extraordinary inequity.

At the same time that this big pension mandate is hitting Chicago, state funding for education is in decline. So it's a double whammy. If state funding could be simply held at 2010 levels, and if we had pension parity, the Chicago Board of Education would have 40 percent more dollars for our kids today, which would obviously be a huge difference. Almost $900 million a year.

CM: How do you get a solution out of Springfield?
FC: As Senator Cullerton is trying to point out, politics is the art of compromise. And his bill does that by giving us pension relief, for the first time -- the state recognizing that they have an obligation to give some funding to Chicago as well as the other districts -- but also putting in a property tax freeze that Gov. Rauner campaigned on. That's how you put these sort of deals together, I believe.

CM: Ms. Jackson, today you announced a way for high-performing principals to free themselves of the bureaucracy and essentially work "out of network." Didn't we try that once before, and doesn't that segregate the best performers from their less-experienced colleagues that need them?
Janice Jackson: The new independent schools program focuses on principals who have demonstrated leadership at the school level, and really freeing them to give them the autonomy to continue to be creative but to also be innovative in the school. Now more than ever, school leaders need the autonomy to be creative because they're asked to do more with less.

CM: What kind of autonomy will they have? The power to negotiate a janitorial contract, for example?
JJ: As a former principal, I know that principals will appreciate the autonomy to seek out professional development opportunities for themselves as well as their teachers. They will also appreciate the flexibility around budgeting. So while it might not be everything that they're expecting, I think that most principals will respond to this new structure.

CM: Parents are probably worried about three things: class size, school closings, and teacher layoffs. What are the answers?
FC: No to school closings. No to class-size increases, unless Springfield is not a partner in the solution.
That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

CM: Will more teachers be laid off?
FC: We've avoided impacts directly in the classroom in terms of teacher ratios but, again, Springfield needs to be our partner. Ultimately, if Chicago continues to be treated differently than every other part of the state, and if the state continues to be almost dead last in the country in education funding, that will obviously have a tremendous impact.

CM: Ms. Jackson, are you having trouble luring good teachers and good principals into CPS right now?
JJ: Acquiring good talent is the most important factor that any organization faces. I would answer that question by saying, Yes, it's always a challenge to hire the best and the brightest, but I think Chicago continues to be a place where people see us as an innovative space. A lot of people are attracted to our district. I also think it's important to mention that we have tried to be as creative as possible to retain our principals.

CM: Declining enrollment is a Chicago story. What assures parents of CPS students that we aren't in a school system that has enrollment in decline no matter what we do?
FC: There are some natural population changes that are affecting that that are unrelated to the schools. But I think we’re seeing that the schools in the last several years – the academic gains we’ve seen under Mayor Emanuel’s administration-- with the principals, and teachers, and parents investing so much to increase test scores, increase graduation rates, increase the number of kids going to college – those are the trend lines. The key is protecting those and building on them, but we can’t do that with the $1.1 billion deficit. We need Springfield to partner with us.

CM: Ms. Jackson, are going to stay the course with what Barbara Byrd-Bennett started out with?
JJ: We will stay committed to the five pillars. They really articulate what it means to have a strong, and fiscally sound school system. The goal is to stabilize the district financially, and continue with the academic gains that we've experienced over the past few years.

CM: What are you telling lawmakers about the dire consequences they face if they don't bail out CPS?
FC: We've tried to be as explicit as possible, and I think that class sizes would be the first causality. We're already at where the district believes is the highest level you should have right now.
JJ: That's 28 at the high school level, 32 in elementary, and some variance.

CM: Fitch, the bond-rating service that recently put us in junk status said, "You're going to save $100 million for every two extra kids you add to a class," which would be 20 extra kids by their math to eliminate a billion dollars.
FC: That is unacceptable. You reach a point where you're not providing a quality education for your children. The bottom line is, we the adults need to work together to find a solution.

CM: Are you talking to Gov. Rauner?
FC: Yes, and the Mayor's had excellent conversations with the legislative leaders. The state has to deal with its own budget first, so we're buying time in the hope that by the end of the year, we can come to a resolution. In the meantime, we're making our case, trying to explain to people so they understand this historical inequity between Chicago and the rest of the state.

CM: Where is the teacher contract going? Is it more promising?
JJ: We’re having productive talks.
FC: It’s ebbed and flowed. The latest sticking issue, which is a serious one, is teacher evaluations. The Mayor feels strongly that the teacher evaluation system we have is working ... and it's something that we're not going to alter. We're going to continue to talk.

See a career timeline for Forrest Claypool:

See a career timeline for Janice Jackson:

Watch a video: Mayor Rahm Emanuel on July 16 announced that Forrest Claypool will be the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

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