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School Budgeting Practices In Chicago Are Questioned

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The Chicago public schools' bureaucracy has engaged in a number of questionable budgeting practices, including hiring new central-office staff and increasing central-office salaries despite a freeze on hiring and promotions, a new report asserts.

In research findings made public late last month, Leadership for Quality Education, a Chicago school-reform and watchdog group, said it also found evidence of "phantom positions'' in local school budgets--jobs for people who left the school years ago or never even worked there.

As a whole, the report contends that the board of education understated the size of its central- and district-office staff and overstated the amount of resources going to schools.

"The board should do what they say they will do,'' said Diana Nelson, the president of Leadership for Quality Education. "If there's a hiring freeze, there should be a freeze. Don't say one thing and do another; that's the bottom line.''

"These are indicators of discrepancies between perceived board policies on the part of the public and actual internal practices,'' she added.

The group reached its conclusions by comparing the district's final fiscal year 1992 budget with personnel-department totals, and by comparing staffing and salary figures from mid-February with those approved in the final budget last August.

It found that the number of central- and district-office positions had increased by more than 33, and that 299 employees had received salary increases totaling more than $545,000.

"We cannot necessarily identify the reason for any of these increases,'' the report noted, but added, "Regardless of the reason, they are clearly contrary to the board's intent in adopting the freeze.''

In addition, the group said, the board of education rehired a number of laid-off administrators as consultants, in some cases paying them more than they had earned as full-time employees.

The group's findings, Ms. Nelson suggested, indicate that the district needs a more sophisticated, up-to-date information-management system. "If you've got budget numbers that don't match what the personnel department has in its files, you've got a problem,'' she said.

An Angry Denial

The report provoked an angry response from Ted Kimbrough, the Chicago superintendent, who called it "irresponsible'' and "absolutely misleading.''

Mr. Kimbrough said that the board never authorized a total freeze on nonschool-personnel salaries, as the study contends. The central-office raises were routine step increases that employees were entitled to, he said.

He also denied that the district added administrative staff members who were not accounted for in the budget. "There was no increase in positions,'' he maintained.

He did acknowledge that the district's budget might have changed somewhat after it was approved, but noted that all budgets are, at best, "approximations and estimations.''

"To represent this as a document that is ironclad is absolutely misleading,'' Mr. Kimbrough said. "Budgets change all year long. As a matter of fact, in most organizations, the budget changes the day it is done, particularly when you have 46,000 people and $2.4 billion,'' as the Chicago school system does.

The study by the watchdog group comes just weeks after another report, by the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy, concluded that the city's landmark school-reform act has done little to change basic classroom practices. (See Education Week, March 25, 1992.)

Mr. Kimbrough charged that the latest report "is a continuation of attacking the administration instead of focusing on classrooms, where the children are. Our problem is educating children. This doesn't educate children.''

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