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Chicago's $9.3B School Budget Includes Infrastructure, STEM

Bolstered by emergency federal funding, Chicago Public Schools is set to adopt an annual budget that would upgrade mechanical systems to improve air quality, start new STEM curriculums and pay down the district's debt.

Interim Chicago Public Schools CEO José Torres speaks during a news conference June 14, 2021, at Richardson Middle School.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune
(TNS) — The Chicago Board of Education is prepared to vote later this month on a $9.3 billion budget that officials say will address student needs as they return to full-time in-person learning 17 months after the pandemic took hold in Chicago.

“In keeping with our commitment to equity, schools that need more will get more,” interim Chicago Public Schools CEO José Torres told reporters. The proposed budget — which is supported by $1.06 billion in coronavirus-related emergency federal funding — is an increase from the $8.4 billion budget approved last year.

Here are five things to know ahead of the July 28 board vote.

1. Addressing ‘critical’ building issues

The proposed $706 million capital budget includes $100 million in federal funds to renovate or replace mechanical systems to improve air quality at 17 schools, with many of the larger fixes slated for South Side campuses. Another $20.5 million would be used to renovate the ground floors of 33 schools to make them accessible for wheelchairs; and $80 million would go to expand the free, full-day prekindergarten program to all 4-year-olds over the next two years, which requires transforming classroom space for the young students. For the upcoming school year, $16 million in operating expenses has been earmarked for 62 of these new classrooms, serving more than 1,200 students in 17 communities.

Virtual hearings on the capital budget are scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday.

2. More teachers, custodians, nurses, social workers, bus aides

The $7.82 billion operating budget calls for new hires. Extra staff would include 334 teachers, 400 custodians, 78 nurses, 44 social workers, four school administrators and more bus aides to help with social distancing. CPS said it is working toward providing a nurse and social worker to every school by the 2023-24 school year.

3. Reengaging at-risk children and getting them back to school

The $525 million federally funded Moving Forward Together initiative, which is intended to supplement individual school budgets and allow for all schools to offer after-school and summer programming, is slated to be split over two years.

Of the $267 million proposed for the coming school year, more than $27 million would be used to “ensure” all students are proficient readers by the end of second grade, with plans for teacher development and leadership training at 200 schools, library supplies and take-home textbook sets at 47 schools and “culturally responsive” programming for parents, grandparents and other caregivers to support literacy development for students at 75 schools. New computers, cameras, projectors and interactive displays would be added to the tune of $19 million.

The Chicago Teachers Union took issue with Moving Forward Together, saying the plan “continues to lack meaningful bench marks, true stakeholder input, or support for proven programs like ‘Sustainable Community Schools’ — critical elements if we are to truly address students’ and schools’ real needs.” The union criticized the budget proposal as “falling short” in providing “adequate funding for basic needs.”

The Sustainable Community Schools initiative has provided extra health services and homelessness support to students and families in need.

4. STEM, STEAM and other new programs

Seven schools are slated to receive new programs as part of a $7.5 million plan.

The new curriculum options are: International Baccalaureate at Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park; science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) at West Park Academy in West Humboldt Park and Ruggles Elementary School in the Chatham area; STEM at Hernandez Middle School in Gage Park; arts at Bright Elementary School in South Deering and Nash Elementary School in South Austin; and dual language at Nathan Davis Elementary School in Brighton Park.

Ald. Maria Hadden said in a social media post that Kilmer’s new IB program is the “first special program granted to a 49th Ward school in 30 years,” an achievement that came after “four years of applying through a competitive process.”

5. Paying down debts — but not with federal COVID-19 relief funds

The board has about $8.4 billion of outstanding long-term debt and $244 million of outstanding short-term debt as of June 30. The budget includes appropriations of $763 million for long-term debt service payments and about $12 million of appropriations for interest on short-term debt.

CPS said it is receiving $2.6 billion in COVID-19-related emergency federal funding over a three-year period. Parents and elected officials voiced opposition to spending this money on schools debt.

“There is no plan to do debt repayment with any of the stimulus funds received by CPS,” Chief Financial Officer Miroslava Krug told reporters. “We’re repaying debt based on the schedules that we have, and every year we have the opportunity to look at the debt that is outstanding and to refinance it to lower our cost of debt, so we do that on a yearly basis.”

Virtual hearings on the overall budget are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday. Follow along at

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