Critics Say CPS Isn’t Spending Big Enough To Meet Student Pandemic Needs

The school district is getting $1.8 billion in COVID-19 funding and plans to invest part of it on student supports. But there are calls to spend far more.

WBEZ
Dawes Elementary School on the first day back for pre-K students on January 11, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Dawes Elementary School on the first day back for pre-K students on January 11, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Critics Say CPS Isn’t Spending Big Enough To Meet Student Pandemic Needs

The school district is getting $1.8 billion in COVID-19 funding and plans to invest part of it on student supports. But there are calls to spend far more.

The Chicago Board of Education votes on Wednesday on a budget for the upcoming school year bolstered by a huge influx in federal dollars. But officials are facing increasing criticism for not spending enough of the federal bonanza on student needs.

Several teachers and parents spoke against the spending blueprint at recent budget hearings, and a protest called by the Chicago Teachers Union is planned for Wednesday morning before the board vote.

The $9.3 billion budget for the school year beginning Aug. 30 is 10% more than the previous year, with the bulk of the increase coming from the federal government. The budget for this year and next includes $516 million of $1.8 billion total the school district is expecting from the federal COVID-19 relief package passed last spring. The $1.8 billion must be spent over three years.

The money this year will go mostly for tutoring, outreach and staff training on dealing with trauma. Chicago Public Schools is facing criticism for not laying out plans to spend the rest of the $1.8 billion.

Advocates and parents say this is the moment for the school district, perennially cash-strapped but burdened with a high-need student population, to offer students the supports they have long needed. School officials and others say they are investing like never before, but cannot spend the money on recurring costs, like salaries, because the money will disappear in three years.

Sophia Lukatya, a bilingual teacher from Von Linne Elementary who was laid off this spring, criticized the school district for hiring temporary tutors instead of investing in teachers and other staff.

“Our kids need consistent and qualified adults to join and restabilize their school communities, not temporary workers,” Lukatya said. “These funds should not be a band-aid for a few months on the gushing wound.”

But school district officials and board members note the federal money is a one-time infusion. Budget director Heather Wendell said that the federal money should not be used in a way that “will put pressure on the district in [the] out years.”

At one hearing on the budget, CPS board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said state and property tax revenue is below levels expected prior to the pandemic.

CPS also remains underfunded according to the state’s formula for what’s required to provide each child an “adequate” education.

“$2 billion sounds like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money,” Todd-Breland said. “But when part of that is just replacement funds — and they are not going to be long-term and will end in two and half years — the ways in which we approach that money is very different than if there was going to be a long-term structural solution.”

Wendell said the federal government laid out that the funds should be used to achieve three main goals: a safe, strong return to school; keeping staff in schools; and providing extra for students in communities hit hard by COVID-19.

This year, the school district is planning to put the new money into hiring tutors, outreach to disengaged students and providing schools extra resources to train staff to help students with the social-emotional impacts of the pandemic.

But teachers and parents say the money should go to make sure all schools have social workers, nurses and librarians, as well as ample counselors, to address student needs.

“There is no way anything new is happening without more people to do it, and that really scares me,” said Ambria Taylor, a teacher at Holden Elementary in Bridgeport on the South Side. She said there is only one counselor in her building of 400 students and that counselor already teaches sex ed, develops social-emotional curriculum, helps students apply for high school, collects data school wide and counsels.

“She has a few full time jobs already,” she said.

The school district already promised in the teachers contract to place a nurse and social worker in every school by 2023. But, much to the chagrin of teachers, officials say they will not use the federal money to speed up that timetable. The district will use about $17 million of the federal money to meet the commitments outlined in the contract.

School district officials, however, note that schools are getting some of the federal money directly and the principals and local school councils can decide how to use it.

Yet a WBEZ analysis of the budget shows little of the federal money is going directly to schools. Only about $61 million of the federal COVID relief money is in school-level budgets.

The WBEZ analysis shows schools are getting an average of $189 per student. School district officials said that schools with the neediest students will get the most and WBEZ’s analysis bears that out. Schools serving all poor students on average are getting $100 more than those serving few low-income children.

After the budget passes, most of the federal COVID-19 relief money will be put in a contingency fund that could technically be spent on anything. However, officials say they are only doing that because they don’t know the exact cost of different initiatives, such as the tutoring program.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.