The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the nation’s third-largest school district in danger of collapse?

School leaders and students, parents and community members from around the state rally at the Illinois State Capitol for fair education funding, on May 26 in Springfield. (Seth Perlman/AP)

In September 2015, the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial that wondered whether the Chicago Public School District would collapse under the weight of its mind-numbing financial problems. It hasn’t yet, but money mismanagement, inadequate funding and failed education policy are combining with a host of other factors to raise the issue of whether the nation’s third-largest school district is in existential danger.

The governor of Illinois is fighting with the mayor of Chicago over funding; the mayor is in a long-term fight with teachers over a controversial pension system, charter schools and other issues, and many parents remain furious with the mayor for closing dozens of traditional public schools three years ago while promoting the expansion of charter schools. Teachers are working under an expired contract and may soon stage their second strike since 2012, when their week-long walkout had public support.

Dozens of principals, including some from the district’s best schools, have decided to leave, but those who are staying were warned recently that they could see 39 percent cuts in funding. That goes for teachers, after-school programs and enrichment programs. Chicago public schools, long in dire financial straits, face a budget deficit of more than $1 billion and must contribute $676 million to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund by June 30, which, the Chicago Sun Times says, would leave only $24 million in the district’s coffers.

Long accustomed to borrowing its way out of financial ruin, the district has seen its credit ratings drop to “junk.” Earlier this year, the district cut the size of one of its bond offers and, as Reuters said, agreed “to pay interest costs rivaling Puerto Rico’s in order to lure investors into the deal.”

Everyone agrees the state’s funding formula needs to be updated, especially since a 2015 report by the nonprofit advocacy group the Education Trust, found that Illinois’s funding gap between poor and wealthy districts “stands out for its unfairness,” with the highest-poverty districts receiving nearly 20 percent less in state funds than the lowest-poverty districts.

Meanwhile, there is a budget impasse in the state capital between Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled legislature. District officials — who say that the Chicago district has 20 percent of the state’s students but only gets 15 percent of its funding — just warned that the public schools won’t open in the fall if the budget for the next fiscal year isn’t passed soon. While several hundred students skipped class — risking detention — last Friday to protest the budget fiasco, Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel keep exchanging insults. WGN.TV reported recently:

Governor Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were back at it, trading nasty barbs. The war of words escalated when the governor said this:
“When you look objectively at the status of Chicago Public Schools, many of them are inadequate. Many of them are woeful and some are just tragic. Many of them are basically just crumbling prisons.”
Not long after Governor Rauner spoke, Mayor Emanuel hit back.
“Now it sounds like he’s auditioning to be Donald Trump’s running mate.”
 Outraged CPS parents chimed in, tweeting images of children with the hashtag, “#Notaprison.”

Cuts are being made at schools and in the central office during the school year, and even the little things suffer: It appears that some schools were short paper towels in the last week and half of  school because deliveries stopped being made, according to parents.

Some principals aren’t waiting around for more trouble. The district said several dozen have quit this school year, which it says is normal. But what isn’t is that some of them have come from some of the highest-performing schools. District officials say Rauner’s refusal to properly fund the district is to blame, but the principals say the district’s management is the biggest factor. Catalyst-Chicago quoted Clarice Berry, departing president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, as saying:

“They’re leaving what were considered plum schools. These are people with schools that at one time were the best of the best to have. When principals are walking away from those schools, you know there is trouble.”

Meanwhile, problems with facilities have been growing  since the district, in what it said was a cost-cutting move, privatized cleaning services two years ago by awarding more than $300 million in contracts to two firms, Aramark and SodexoMAGIC (the latter associated with former NBA star Magic Johnson, who, incidentally, donated to Emanuel’s reelection campaign last year). Principals have repeatedly complained that schools were dirty and that complaints were not addressed in a timely manner. In fact, just last week, the Tribune reported:

In a rare move, the leadership of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Operating Engineers, Principals Association and Teachers Union joined forces to rail against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his hand-picked Board of Education on wasteful spending, campaign contributions and lucrative contracts. At a time when state and city resources are scarce, the three groups called for transparency, state and city oversight and accountability when it comes to privatization contracts with controversial companies.

Even as Emanuel fights with Rauner, public school educators are no fans of Emanuel. He has angered them for years by supporting key tenets of corporate school reform, including the privatization of public services, the expansion of charter schools and the closure of nearly 50 traditional public schools in a manner that infuriated parents.  In April, the union rejected an independent fact-finders recommendation that it accept a four-year contract offered by the city, and its president, Karen Lewis, said that the district’s financial problems could not solely be laid at the feet of the Republican governor, but also at the mayor’s and district leadership’s.

Lewis, who has had some famous fights with Emanuel, said at a news conference:

“We really feel that it’s not right to just blame Springfield. The blame is in City Hall on the fifth floor, not asking and not being consistent or coherent or having a real plan for funding.”

She also said that the union could accept a “flat contract” — without a pay increase — to help the district out of its money troubles. But union officials said they would strike if district officials decide to stop paying the majority of teacher pension contributions, which is traditional in Chicago. In April, teachers staged a one-day strike to put pressure on Rauner to end the budget standoff and to urge legislators to fix the Illinois education funding formula.

Emanuel has the power to hire the district’s chief executive officer and members of the Board of Education, and educators and parents have serious issues his choices for district leadership. In 2011, Emanuel hired Jean-Claude Brizard to run the district, but he lasted only 17 months before the mayor soured on him and ushered him out of the job right after the 2012 teachers strike. He then hired Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who resigned as the chief executive of the district a year ago and later pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme in which she helped direct more than $23 million in contracts to companies owned by her former employers. She was sentenced to 7½ years in prison. To succeed her as district chief, the mayor last July picked Forrest Claypool, who happened to be a longtime political ally and his chief of staff. That choice didn’t go over well with educators and parents.

Byrd-Bennett’s may have been the biggest ethics problem found in the schools during Emanuel’s tenure as mayor, but hardly the only one. A report released this past January by the Office of the Inspector General said that it had investigated 322 of more than 1,300 complaints involving theft, fraud and corruption during 2015, and found, among other things, that some employees used the district’s tax-exempt status to buy personal televisions and refrigerators, some parents lied to get their children accepted into schools with selective enrollment, and some employees stole money directly from the district. The Inspector General’s report detailing problems in 2014 also reported numerous cases of fraud, theft and corruption.

As a sign of just how many educators feel about Emanuel’s stewardship of the district, consider who was recently voted president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, an organization that negotiates with the district over administrator salaries and other issues but is not a union. It was Troy LaRaviere, who had been principal of Chicago’s Blaine Elementary School until he was pushed out of his job by officials who said he was insubordinate. LaRaviere has been a vocal critic of the district and the mayor’s education policies and campaigned against his reelection last year.

That’s the utter mess in Chicago public education. Stay tuned.