CHICAGO (CN) — The Chicago Board of Education was nearly unanimous Wednesday in approving the school district's fiscal year 2022 budget, in spite of several controversies surrounding its funding allocations.
Six board members voted in favor of the budget while Vice President Sendhil Revuluri abstained. No members voted against it.
The 2022 budget is larger than in 2021 by more than a billion dollars. A breakdown of funding released by the city estimates its total operating budget at about $7.8 billion and total revenue and expenses at $9.3 billion, helped by federal assistance.
The largest single source of income for Chicago Public Schools comes from local property taxes – about $3.9 billion. But the budget also includes over $1 billion in federal Covid-19 relief funding, of which $525 million has been earmarked for the school district's "Moving Forward Together" initiative. The staffing initiative, which will spread the money between the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years, promises 78 more nurses, 44 more social workers and 51 new special education teachers for the district's students.
Despite this, several members of the Chicago Teachers Union said the new workers would not be enough to meet the needs of all 600-plus public schools in Chicago. The hiring of more support staff has long been a point of contention between CPS, CTU and students' families.
Demands for more staff were at the heart of the 2019 teachers' strike. From that conflict, the district eventually agreed to hire over 120 more social workers and 140 school nurses by 2022. The eventual goal agreed on by the union and the district is to have at least one social worker and nurse in every school.
But the union and district remain divided over the pace with which this goal is being pursued. CTU Political Director Kurt Hilgendorf said that in the coming school year, 100 schools will have no social workers and 180 will have no nurse.
CPS Board President Miguel del Valle, on the other hand, pointed out that the district is chronically in debt, and that staff salaries and pensions already make up the majority of the district's annual budget. For fiscal year 2021, 77% of the district's budget was earmarked for staff payment.
"The federal dollars... are one-time dollars," del Valle said. "It's basic math... If we use those federal dollars to create full-time positions at high numbers, then in a couple years when those federal dollars are gone, we will not have the funds to pay for those positions."
Hilgendorf and other CTU members pushed back on that sentiment Wednesday, arguing that it was not funding but equitable priorities that the district lacked.
"For just 3% of the federal recovery funds, we could have a nurse, a social worker and a librarian in every school. I'm tired of the canned answer that we don't have the money for this. We do," teacher Eva Padilla said.
Other controversial aspects of the district's financial priorities involve facilities service companies Aramark and SodexoMAGIC, which have had a contract with the district to provide school janitorial services since 2014. As part of the new budget, the Board approved renewing Aramark's contract for another three years.
It was a controversial decision even outside the CTU; Aramark and SodexoMAGIC have been at the center of numerous scandals. In 2018, CPS staffers found filthy conditions in 91 schools that used Aramark and SodexoMAGIC services. Worse, reporting from the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that numerous Aramark supervisors cheated on their school cleanliness audits.
In response to this, CPS officials said in 2020 that they planned to dump the private companies and return janitorial services to the school district's public purview. Their reversal on this issue - to the extent that Aramark's contract has been renewed at almost $370 million dollars, a higher amount than in previous years - was condemned by Hilgendorf, as well as some other CTU commenters at the Wednesday meeting.
"You say we need to get back to normal, but normal was never good enough," teacher Melissa McBride said. "'Normal' includes welcoming Aramark back into schools to provide privatized janitorial services, while those of us who are in school buildings know we can continue to expect filthy classrooms."
CPS Facilities Chief Clarence Carson admitted that there were "challenges" with Aramark during their tenure with the district, but said his department had increased accountability measures since 2018.
"Our advancements, our leadership changes have actually driven down complaints, and driven up accountability and also disciplinary action against staff... we think that overall, our services as a facilities department has improved," he said.
Carson also confirmed that the district's custodial services would be further privatized in the coming year, Specifically, JLL, an international real estate services company based in Chicago, will take over many professional roles in facility maintenance.
This privatization is something Hilgendorf said CTU had "real issues with."
"Our position is [the budget] is not adequate... they spend more money on private corporations than on paying for nurses," Hilgendorf said.
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