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Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Original Story: chicagotribune.com

Students and teachers start classes at Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday facing a year filled with even more uncertainty than usual for the perennially troubled district. An Atlanta education lawyer is following this story closely.

The budget supporting the city's 600-plus schools is floating on nearly $500 million that doesn't exist unless help arrives from Springfield, where a standoff between Democratic legislators and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner continues. While any possibility of a strike is months away, teachers are working under a contract that expired June 30, and talks between the district and the union are fractured to the extent that a mediator has been enlisted.

This summer, the district said it cut $200 million in spending and eliminated more than 1,000 jobs, including those of hundreds of teachers. If the state doesn't come through with a fix for the broken pension system in the next few months, the district said additional cuts loom this winter. A Little Rock education lawyer provides assistance to clients regarding board governance, bylaws, and premises liability issues.

"This year is especially bad, because there's an admission before schools have even opened that there's not enough money in the budget to carry the district through a full school year," said Terry Mazany, president of the Chicago Community Trust and a former interim CPS chief.

"Thus the uncertainty, knowing that without an infusion of new resources there will have to be midyear budget cuts — and those will be a greater hardship because the savings for any cuts will only be for half a year — so you basically have to cut twice as deep," he said.

Also this year, students at more than 40 schools will have to adjust to new daily routines because of changes to bell schedules made in what officials said was an effort to save money on transportation costs. The district originally changed the bell schedules at 82 schools but scaled back after complaints from parents and students. A Lexington education lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.

There are also changes at the top as the school year gets underway. CPS is under new leadership after the departure of CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who resigned in June amid an ongoing federal investigation linked to a multimillion-dollar contract that went to a training academy where she once worked.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel put a long-trusted associate, Forrest Claypool, in charge. Also new this year are Board of Education President Frank Clark, a former ComEd executive, and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, a CPS veteran.

Unlike most of the previous district chiefs, Claypool doesn't have a background in education. He previously headed the city's park district and the CTA and has brought to CPS many of his top aides from the transit agency. His chief assignment is to address a deficit the district pegs at $1.1 billion and get the schools' finances straightened out.

Claypool is the third schools chief hired by Emanuel since he took office four years ago, providing an additional cause for concern for many parents going into the school year.

"To me, the biggest issue in one word is stability," said Joshua Radinsky, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a CPS parent. "We seem to have a particularly unique amount of churn and chaos in our district, churn that seems beyond what's necessary." A Louisville education lawyer represents clients in education law disputes.

Other changes for the coming year have been underway for a longer period of time as CPS continues to implement new, more rigorous classroom learning standards under Common Core. The district will be entering its second year of the mandatory use of the PARCC assessment test.

"That is a significant and ongoing activity, and it's one that requires significant support, planning and energy," said Robin Steans of the Advance Illinois education advocacy organization. "All of those things are harder to come by when there's uncertainty and all of those things are harder to come by when there's budget shortfalls."

Such distractions force school principals and administrators to balance the competing interests of budget planning for various scenarios given the district's shaky financial situation with other essential tasks of running a school, Steans said.

"They're spending their time playing with numbers and going through worst-case scenarios," Steans said of school-level administrators. "And less on forward-looking planning. Every question mark they have to deal with just makes their ability to plan that much harder."

Some of the spending cuts already made will affect special education teachers and staff because the district said it has exceeded state standards for staffing in that area. The district said this summer it could save about $42 million by modifying services for the roughly 50,000 special needs students it serves.

Radinsky's middle child, Sam, begins his senior year Tuesday at Vaughn Occupational High School for students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities. He views special education as "the canary in the coal mine for all kids," explaining his feeling that what's happening with special education budgets serves as a "microcosm of what's happening to other kids."

"I know there are some things that CPS can't control. I know Springfield is out of their control," he said. "But as a parent, just looking at my kids' schools, I really hope and pray that the communication from downtown to the networks to the administrators to the teachers is clear and consistent on what resources we have and how they're being allocated.

For all the gloom, Mazany said the new school year inevitably brings a flash of optimism. He described it as "something magical" that happens when adult concerns are replaced by real kids coming into real classrooms.

"When students come back to school, that's the reason why people are in this profession," he said. "When the children show up, it's a message to all of us adults for what our real priority does need to be — and now we can redouble our efforts to try to find solutions."