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How I spent my summer break: Firing teachers

A Chicago Public Schools principal explains why she pink-slipped teachers to balance her budget.

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It's been a lousy year for the local public schools—even by Chicago standards.

There was the brouhaha over Mayor Rahm Emanuel's mandated longer day, followed by a teacher strike. Then the mayor closed 50 schools.

And at the end of the school year—just as he was proclaiming a new start for the Chicago Public Schools—the mayor fired 2,000 employees, including more than 1,000 teachers, in another round of budget cuts.

Needless to say, the mayor has managed to stir up a few feelings about how the closings and cuts are going to play out in the new school year. The first day is August 26.

"How was my summer? Oh, don't ask," says one north-side principal I'll call Jackie. "I'm like a juggler with these budget cuts. If people only knew."

I wound up having several long conversations with Jackie, who doesn't want to be identified by her real name. Like so many other CPS principals and teachers, she's afraid of retribution. But her experiences and concerns say a lot about the messes Emanuel has created in the schools.

Jackie's school is hardly well known. It's not among the highest- or lowest-scoring in the system, just somewhere in the great middle—though I might add that it's well ahead of many of the charters the mayor is eager to promote.

It's a neighborhood school, which means it accepts any child within its boundaries. The student population is almost evenly divided between Hispanics and whites, and much of it is low-income. The parents aren't rich enough to supplement the budget with lucrative fund-raisers, like some of the wealthier magnets and north-side neighborhood schools.

Basically, Jackie has to make do on the funds she gets from the central office.

That means she has just enough money to hire one teacher for the arts—all of them. She decided to go with a music teacher, which means the school has no one teaching drama or visual arts.

The school does stage one play a year, thanks to a third-grade teacher who pulls it together. "I try to give her $500 to direct it," says Jackie. "But she's putting in at least an extra 100 hours of work. My teachers work very hard."

There's one gym teacher for more than 600 students, which means that everyone gets gym once a week.

As you can see, things are pretty bare-bones in the Chicago Public Schools.

But Jackie's serious money-juggling act began last summer, after Mayor Emanuel imposed a longer school day.

"I think we need a longer day," she says. "But any principal will tell you it's only as good as what we have for resources. Otherwise, you're just asking everyone to work longer for less."

As part of the longer day, the mayor mandated recess—which was fine with Jackie, to a degree. "Kids should have recess," she says. "The problem is funding. We have to hire people to supervise them—we can't have kids out there alone. I had to budget $30,000 for supervisors. I hired four part-time people and pay them $14 an hour."

She didn't get the money from the central office.

"We need more teachers, but now we have fewer," says Jackie, principal of a north-side school. "It's tragic."

"I had to take it from the furniture and technology fund. We haven't bought furniture in years. OK—we can live with old furniture. But our computers are now between four and 12 years old. The irony is that testing is digital today. The days of filling out the little boxes with number-two pencils are over. We have to have kids sit before the computers to test them. We have to make sure we have proficient computers. We don't even have a whole lot of computers in the building. I have 60 laptops for the whole school. They're used all the time."

Jackie would love to buy more laptops. But there's one problem.

"With what? I told you—I'm using the technology fund to pay for the playground supervisors that I have to have because we need someone to watch the kids at recess. The mayor tells everyone, 'I made them have recess.' But he doesn't tell you that we had to take money from the computers and furniture fund to pay for it."

On the upside, CPS did increase her school's budget last year so she could hire a new teacher to work with students during the extended time at school.

"I could have gone for an art teacher or a drama teacher," says Jackie. "But I decided I'd hire a teacher to work with the kids on reading. She's a great teacher. She sees 600 kids a week. I think it's important to bring the kids up to grade level."

Then came this year's budget cuts, which wiped out last year's budget gains.

"The first I heard about it was when some of the principals were called for a meeting with [chief administrative officer] Tim Cawley. He gave a PowerPoint presentation that basically said, 'Pension, pension, pension.' He said they were cutting our budgets because they had to pay the teachers' pensions. It was like they were trying to turn the principals against the teachers."

Last year her budget was about $5 million. This year it was cut by around $400,000.

"They give us all this lofty language about being all-powerful principals, but we still have these financial constraints," she says.

Jackie spent much of her summer trying to figure who she could fire while doing the least amount of damage. She finally decided she had to cut three positions: a teacher of English as a second language, a reading specialist, and a teacher's aide.

"We're still trying to bring the kids up to reading level," she says, "but we have fewer people doing it."

All in all, she's stuck with the worst of both worlds—a longer school day and less money.

"It's really frustrating. I used to have a lean, skinny budget. But now I have a cut-to-the bone budget. I'm not asking for anything special like they have in the private schools or the suburbs. I'm just asking for what we had. We need more teachers, but now we have fewer. It's tragic."

Jackie also took some time this summer to attend the Summer Leadership Academy, which is what CPS calls its mandatory principal-training sessions.

They don't come cheap. While CPS is supposedly so broke it's making principals lay off their teachers, it found $20 million for three years of the training sessions. And somehow the no-bid contract went to the Supes Academy, a consulting firm in Wilmette for whom schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett used to work.

Let's take a moment to thank Sarah Karp, an ace reporter for Catalyst, for breaking that story.

"I went to that training for four days—for six to eight hours each day," says Jackie. "I became less intelligent after I went through that. I had three days with a guy who was breezing through a PowerPoint and telling us how he did it when he was principal. If you asked a question, he'd tell you another war story. What a waste of money. Imagine all the teachers we could hire with that $20 million."

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