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Budget Pact Paves Way for Opening of Chicago Schools

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The Chicago public schools were expected to open quietly this week after a round of intense negotiations among the school district's major players produced a balanced budget and a plan to further decentralize the system.

The School Finance Authority, which oversees the school budget, last week gave formal approval to the budget agreement and to a three-year decentralization plan.

Without a balanced spending plan, the finance authority would have been legally required to keep the schools closed.

The agreement largely preserves the 7 percent raises that teachers were promised under their current contract, although they will not begin receiving the extra money until Oct. 13. Because of the delay, the raises will average 6.1 percent.

Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union threatened to strike over the board of education's proposals to cut teachers' raises. The union settled for a smaller raise and a guarantee that teachers would receive the full amount this year. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)

$155.9 Million Deficit

The budget standoff, which has become an annual ritual in Chicago, began July 15, when General Superintendent Ted D. Kimbrough unveiled a proposed budget with a $155.9 million deficit.

The board of education then adopted a budget that would have cut teachers' and other employees' raises to 2.6 percent and reduced the size of the central administration.

The budget was rejected by the School Finance Authority, which complained that it appeared to violate the teachers' contract and counted on the uncertain prospect of an advance payment of school aid from the state.

As it had done several times before, the finance authority also rejected the board's proposal for decentralizing the school system along the lines called for under the 1988 state law that overhauled the Chicago schools. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

Under its new chairman, Martin J. Koldyke, the authority took the unprecedented step in June of going directly to parents, principals, and teachers to find out what services they wanted to receive from the central office. Their recommendations were compiled into a report that the finance authority insisted should be the basis for the board's three-year reform plan.

Ground Up' Reforms

Calling for the mission and structure of the central office to be "rethought from the ground up,'' the report recommended permanently employing a very small number of central-office workers.

Schools, the report said, should have the choice between using the school system's services or using private or nonprofit service providers.

Under such a system, the superintendent's role would be to identify failing schools and find help for them, perhaps from universities, consultants, or other outside sources.

The report also called for teachers to work for individual schools, not the central office, and for principals and building engineers to be paid according to their performance, not the size of the school.

After the finance authority warned the school board that it would not approve the proposed budget, Mayor Richard M. Daley called representatives of the finance authority, the school board, and the Chicago Teachers Union to his office over the weekend of Aug. 29-30 to seek a solution to the stalemate.

After 30 hours, they emerged with a compromise. The finance authority agreed to let the school system budget some of the money the authority holds for it in reserve, while Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois agreed to speed up the delivery of $43 million in general state-aid payments to Chicago.

The CTU, in turn, agreed to delay teachers' raises until October and to receive bonuses for taking college courses in installments rather than in lump sums.

And the school board made further cuts in the central administration, reducing administrative expenses by $9 million and eliminating 1,000 jobs.

The number of administrative positions in Chicago has been cut to 1,343 for this school year, down from 3,937 in 1989, according to the board.

Calm Is Short-Lived

After the marathon negotiating session, the finance authority approved the new budget and reform plan.

The calm was short-lived, however. Last week, the CTU filed charges of unfair labor practices against the board and the finance authority in a dispute over the layoffs of nearly 500 school clerks, truant officers, and library assistants and the shortening of the school year for some employees.

The union maintains that the finance authority is holding in reserve $150 million that should be used to keep the employees.

Plan Well Received

Reform advocates hailed the new plan as the first significant move toward devolving actual authority from the central office to the city's schools, which have been nominally under the governance of local elected councils since 1989.

"For three years, we have kind of spun our wheels in terms of decentralization, and this is the first real step forward,'' said Joan Jeter Slay, the associate director of Designs for Change, a local advocacy and research organization.

The new budget and reform plan call for determining the staffing of the central and subdistrict offices by the number and kind of schools' requests for services from them, allocating money for building repairs to the subdistrict offices, giving schools the $500,000 now budgeted for staff development to spend as they wish, and transferring money for food purchases, tests, supplies, transportation, and telephone services directly to the schools next year.

Ms. Slay said that the agreements also call for schools to submit their plans for spending state compensatory-education money directly to the state for approval, rather than going through the board of education.

Schools also will assume the primary responsibility for developing curriculum, following standards established by the board.

Ms. Slay noted that the continuing budget crisis forced the board to make deep cuts in the administration. Last year, the reductions were made in programs that directly affected the schools, such as supplies.

"Frankly, I think they have done a heroic job of keeping these cuts as far away from the schools as they could,'' she said.

Board members also promised to tackle next year's projected $300 million deficit right away, rather than waiting until next summer as is customary.

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