Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th) has been speaking out against charter school expansion in his north-side ward. Credit: Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It’s been such a gloomy budget-cutting stretch for the Chicago Public Schools that I’d thought I’d cheer you up by going back to a glorious moment from just a few months ago. This was in May, when Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Alderman Ameya Pawar joined the locals to block Mayor Emanuel from creating more charters in Rogers Park and Uptown.

Their argument was that more charters would only divert money from the neighborhood schools. “If you want to grow communities, you have to improve the neighborhood schools,” Pawar says. “There’s no way around it.”

Here we are a few months later and CPS is cutting—not increasing­—spending on local schools.

There are a number of problems with school funding and finances in Chicago. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, after years of borrowing and putting off pension payments, the district is crying poverty.

But that’s only part of the story. CPS doesn’t spend its money wisely—consider the $20.5 million principal-training contract that the board handed out to a company that used to employ former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

In addition, it doesn’t spend enough­ on the people it’s supposed to serve. CPS spends about $13,000 per student. In contrast, the elite private schools—like Lab and Latin and Francis Parker—charge more than $30,000.

A portion of that $13,000 is so-called “student-based” money, which CPS annually allocates to each school for every child it enrolls. Like pretty much everything else around here it’s hard to explain, because Chicago bureaucrats have an ability to take something relatively straightforward and turn it into a monumental mess. But let me try.

The student-based allowance is based on a projection—made by central office demographers—of what a school’s enrollment will be in the fall. If the demographers predict the school will enroll, say, 100 children, the board will allocate roughly $500,000, or about $5,000 per student.

Easy, right? Oh, if it were that simple.

The board then oversees a true-up count that occurs after the 20th day of the school year. That means if CPS determines they “overprojected” a school’s enrollment, it’ll snatch away some of the budget.

Putting two and two together, I’d have to say this is because they’ve decided that “overspending” on an “underenrolled” school means there will be less money to fork over to the company that once employed the CEO—though I’m not sure anyone at CPS would put it that way.

The true-up sets off a game of musical chairs in the fall, as teachers get assigned to different schools and principals are forced to reshuffle the schedules of students. It pretty much guarantees that there’s no continuity for the first month of the school year, making it that much harder for students to learn something—which I thought was the whole point of having schools, as opposed to using them to take care of the CEO’s friends.

For years I’ve advocated that we do away with the musical chairs and just let the schools keep the money, even if they’re underenrolled. But as you can imagine, CPS officials listen to my budget suggestions about as often as the mayor listens to my advice on tax increment financing. And so the game of musical chairs continues.

Actually, though, last year Mayor Emanuel decided to change things. He told principals that he would “hold them harmless” in the case of an overprojection of enrollment. That is, he’d let them keep the money even if a school ended up being underenrolled.

Of course, at that time the mayor was about to launch his reelection campaign. And the last thing he needed was an insurrection of parents upset about school cuts.

This year there is no reelection looming, and guess what? Emanuel has reversed his hold-them-harmless policy. He now expects schools to pay back the money he “overpaid” them last year.

That means he’s taking back about $207,000 from Roosevelt High School, $187,000 from Sullivan, and $443,000 from Harper. Also, he’s demanding a refund of $593,000 from Orr, $616,000 from Julian, and—well, you get it.

By the way, things could even get worse. As the mayor points out, the current budget is based on the expectation that the state will provide about $500 million that the state may not in fact provide, since it’s bogged down by its own budget problems.

So there could be another round of budget cuts come fall, further undercutting the efforts by Pawar, Schakowsky, and others to bolster funding for neighborhood schools.

To illustrate the importance of neighborhood schools, Pawar likes to tell his own family’s story. His father and mother—immigrants from India—moved from Rogers Park to Des Plaines in the 1980s because they didn’t think the local schools were up to par. They also didn’t want their children’s future to be dictated by how they scored on standardized tests that controlled admission to selective enrollment schools. And they didn’t want to shell out big bucks for private tuition.

That’s how it came to pass that young Ameya Pawar learned his ABCs—and a few other things—in the Des Plaines public school systems.

Come to think of it, Mayor Emanuel has a similar story. His parents moved the family from Uptown to Wilmette so Rahm and his two brothers could take advantage of the New Trier school system.

Here we are more than 40 years later, and the current mayor is sending out a familiar message to parents all over town: if you want to send your children to adequately funded neighborhood public schools, you better go to the suburbs.  v