By Mila Koumpilova, Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago’s $8.4 billion budget plan for its public schools includes $125 million in new classroom investments and another $75 million for the district’s pandemic response — new spending that gambles on Congress coming through with additional emergency funding for schools despite recently stalled talks in Washington.
The school district is also planning to cut its controversial tab for school police at least in half to reflect that officers don’t work in schools 12 months of the year, a new detail that has emerged in response to questioning about the existing $33 million contract between the school district and the city’s police department.
Chicago’s budget plan unveiled Monday includes $758 million in capital spending, specifically $653 million for facility projects across the city — a list that includes a new South Side high school long-awaited by some communities.
Broken down by category, the budget proposal lays out a $6.9 billion operating budget for district schools, charters, and administrative expenses, $711 million in debt management spending, and $758 million in capital expenses. It must now go before the Chicago Board of Education on Aug. 26.
The added spending banks on the feds delivering on proposals for a second school bailout package. District officials noted that the $343 million in such financial support they budgeted is less than what Chicago would receive under even the most conservative proposal in Congress; they argued that there is strong bipartisan support for channeling more money to schools grappling with the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
While some public entities, including California, are also budgeting with the assumption that this financial injection will come through, the approach could be risky given deep disagreement about the amount and fine print of the funding between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
District officials said they prioritized investment in the city’s highest-need communities, using for the first time a new “equity index” to steer resources to schools that serve primarily low-income students.
“Even amidst the unprecedented challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, we continue to lead with our values of equity and inclusion, especially when it comes to our children and their educational future,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.
The district said an additional $75 million in COVID-19 related expenses — beyond an earlier $75 million in emergency spending the school board authorized last spring — will help support both the remote learning that will start the school year and a possible shift to a blend of in-person and virtual instruction later in the year. The money will pay for more computers and other technology, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, free school meals, and more.
The district is also using $128 million out of the $206 million it is expected to receive in other coronavirus relief funding, with the remainder covering expenses from this past school year.
A more restrained facility budget than the district has adopted in recent years, the $758 million in capital expenditures includes $653 million that will go toward what the district described as critical renovations at neighborhood schools, with a priority on restroom repairs.
It also includes money to make school buildings more accessible for people with disabilities as part of a five-year, $100 million investment, as well as dollars for new pre-kindergarten classrooms, science labs, South Side sports complexes, new playgrounds, and spaces for new academic programs.
The budget includes an added $50 million allocation from the state to build a new high school in the Near South Side. Previously, the district had pushed to close a popular South Side elementary school and reopen it as a high school — a proposal that drew widespread controversy. After protests and a court-ordered freeze on the school closure, Chicago ultimately withdrew the plan.
The $125 million in new classroom spending includes $44 million in previously announced “equity grants” to support schools with flagging enrollment and other needs as well as what officials touted as a record investment in school nurses, social workers, and special education case managers.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.