Over the next few days, principals will be given their school budgets and will find that they have more decision-making power and more money to spend on instruction. But there’s a catch: Their budgets may include less money for other expenses.

Officials said that principals will be given an additional $130 million in discretionary money. More than half of that money will come from planned but still-undetermined cuts in district operations. In a budget presentation at the April Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said that he and his team are scrutinizing the procurement process to find these savings.

The rest of the new discretionary dollars—about $50 million–will come from shifting money from centrally-operated programs. But CPS officials declined to specify which programs will be eliminated and how much additional money each school will get.

As an example of programs that could be eliminated, Cawley pointed to college coaches, who are not certified counselors but are charged with taking students on college tours and helping them fill out financial aid forms.  Under former CEO Arne Duncan, these coaches were lauded for helping improve the district’s college-going rate.

Encouraging innovation

In another switch, the district will no longer provide money on a line-item basis for resources like supplies and textbooks. Instead, that money will be dumped into the discretionary pot.

“If a principal wants to, they can use their discretionary money for it,” Cawley said. “But this gives them flexibility to figure out the best way to spend it.”

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said principals can be more innovative under this new approach. “As a principal, I wanted more flexibility so I could be creative,” he said.

Area network officers will help principals decide what to spend their money on.

The school-level budgets are always important because they tell principals how many students the district expects them to have, how many staff they will be given–and whether they should plan to lay off staff or post job ads.

But this year, the budgets will be even more telling. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leadership must do a balancing act: They are imposing a longer school day, while at the same time facing a budget deficit that they project at $600 million to $700 million. Critics of the longer day argue that schools need more money to fill the extra time with art and music class–and even staff to supervise recess.

“To simply add time will not benefit the children,” said Rebecca Malone, a mother who is part of a group called 19th Ward Parents and who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting. “Do not ask schools to be creative to fill a longer day.”

Cawley told board members that he and his team have not figured out how they will balance the budget and did not specify whether there will be any extra money for a longer school day.  However, it is clear that district officials expect principals to use the increase in discretionary dollars to pay for additional programming—even though the increase is based on cuts elsewhere.

Principals have long complained that too much of their school budget is tied up with mandatory expenses. Yet if they end up with less money overall, they will forced to make tough decisions and take the blame for program cuts made by district leaders.

Cawley said CPS is behind other school districts in terms of giving principals more discretion over their budgets. Previous administrations unsuccessfully tried to move toward per-pupil budgeting, which would give principals total discretion.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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