Ron Huberman Credit: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

In the past few weeks, Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman has called on parents, teachers, students, central office bureaucrats, and ordinary taxpayers to do their part to help the district erase a $900 million budget deficit: Teachers should forgo promised pay hikes. Students must do without sophomore sports. Coaches should be willing to coach for free. Class sizes are likely to swell. Taxpayers should expect higher bills.

And what about the CPS administration? They’ve already done their bit, according to Huberman. “Over the past year, we have worked to close the budget deficit by focusing on Central Office and Citywide departments,” he recently wrote in a memo to schools employees. “These cuts were very difficult, but our primary goal was to minimize direct impact on schools.”

Last week Mayor Daley weighed in, admonishing teachers to enter the “real world” and forgo their 4 percent raises. “Government has to diet,” Daley told reporters on March 22. “You have to be able to cut back and start sharing the loss that people have.”

Wow—that sounds like decisive leadership. But having spent the better part of the last week poring over the 350-page Chicago Public Schools budget, I can tell you there’s little evidence that the central office has gone on a diet. In fact, top schools brass are enjoying something like a carbo-loading feast. The district’s highest-ranking officials got healthy raises this year— and one of the biggest went to Huberman.

How can CPS dole out raises while claiming to be cutting back? Let this be a lesson about the difference between a press release, disseminated far and wide for mass consumption, and a governing budget, buried on a Web site and read only by insiders and a few really motivated geeks.

The 2009-2010 fiscal year budget was crafted by aides to Huberman and passed in August 2009 by the Board of Education, the seven-member body of mayoral appointees that oversees the school system. Like any government budget, it’s basically a list of projections and priorities for the coming year, as the board calculates how much money it expects to collect in taxes and state and federal aid and how it plans to spend it.

Given his stated wish to “minimize direct impact on schools,” you might think Huberman would dedicate as much of the available money as possible to people who actually work with students—teachers, teaching aides, coaches, etc. But instead it seems the further you get away from the classroom, the better your chances of being rewarded.

There are 53 departments, bureaus, or offices in the central schools bureaucracy, and the top remaining officials in every one—as well as many of their assistants—received raises, according to the budget.

For example, Calvin Davis, the director of sports, was making $122,000 last year but now makes $128,000. He’s the one tasked with e-mailing assistant high school coaches telling them they’ll have to work for free—rather than the paltry $1,000 to $2,500 a season they were making.

Communications director Monique Bond is budgeted to make $130,000, up from $111,000 a year ago—that’s a 17 percent raise. Prior to following Huberman to CPS a little over a year ago, she was the spokeswoman for the city’s police department and before that the aviation department. Last December Reader media columnist Michael Miner reported on her reputation among journalists for making it hard to get information about the schools and wondered whether that’s what she’d been hired to do. I for one can attest that she does a pretty good job of blowing off my calls and e-mails.

The director of intergovernmental affairs, Eduardo Garza, got his pay boosted from $109,000 to $113,000. Garza was once a southwest-side independent and in 2006 ran a strong race against state senator Martin Sandoval, an ally of powerful 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke. Burke was so impressed that he found a place for Garza on his City Hall staff. Garza moved over to CPS in 2008 and has been working his way up the food chain ever since.

The Board of Ed also took care of its own. Last year it had 20 employees; this year it has one more, an “acting director” of the board who makes $146,000. Other high-paying board jobs include deputy chief of staff ($155,000) and secretary to the board ($111,000), both making more this year than last. The salary for the chief of staff to the board—a position held by David Pickens until March 26, when he resigned—was bumped to $163,000 from $155,000. That’s the same David Pickens who recently said that when he was an aide to Huberman’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, he kept a so-called clout list of supplicants who’d begged administrators to get their kids into one of the high-performing schools. The admissions policies at these schools are now the subject of a federal investigation.

Employees in Huberman’s office were also rewarded. Besides Huberman himself, the office has two other employees making more than $100,000 a year: a “manager” whose salary went from $98,500 to $103,400 and a “senior professional” whose pay was trimmed a few hundred bucks and now stands at about $102,000.

And Huberman himself? His budgeted salary jumped from about $204,000 to $230,000—a hike of $26,000, or 12.7 percent. Not bad in a recession.

Bond did get back to me when I left her a message about her boss’s salary. She said that while it’s true Huberman’s budgeted pay went way up, he’s voluntarily taking a pay cut in the form of unpaid furloughs. Therefore “he did not receive an increase,” Bond wrote in an e-mail. “His true salary as a result of the unpaid holidays and furlough days is $216,660, a 5.9 percent reduction in salary. The 5.9 percent reduction also applies to all Central Office employees making more than $50,000.” We’re taking her word on this, since she didn’t respond to my request for documentation of Huberman’s furloughs.

Well, it’s nice to know Huberman’s giving up something for the team, but he’s still making nearly $13,000, or 6 percent, more than he did last year. In effect Huberman and these other bureaucrats got their salaries jacked up to insulate themselves against any voluntary pay cuts they might take. It’s like the department store that doubles its prices and then announces a half-off sale.

Of course I haven’t even seen any evidence that he’s actually only making $216,660. In general there’s a great deal of contradictory information regarding basic budgetary matters here. For instance, last June Huberman announced that he had fired more than 1,000 district employees, including 167 “professional mid-management” types making between $78,000 and $90,000 a year. He claimed to have saved about $200 million with these cuts and other efficiencies.

“Huberman, who has no background in education, says his goal is to remove the clutter, to push as much money down to the classrooms—and away from the bureaucracy—as possible,” the Sun-Times editorialized on June 17. “We like the sound of that.”

But the budget doesn’t reflect this. It shows that the central office employs only 119 fewer people than it did last year, with a resulting savings of about $5 million. Where were the rest of the cuts supposedly made? Good question. I asked Bond for documentation of Huberman’s cuts. She never provided any.

The budget also shows where the ax didn’t fall, including various departmental allowances set aside for unspecified “contractual services” covering everything from “telephone and telegraph” to “repair contracts.”

I mean, I guess I can see why the board would be careful to set aside sizable chunks of money for unspecified contingencies. After all, last year they had to shell out $100,000 to hire a former federal prosecutor to investigate whether previous board members Michael Scott and Rufus Williams had improperly charged artwork, limousine rides, high-priced meals, liquor, and other expenses to their district credit cards.

This year the board increased its allowance for “non professional services” to $243,000 from about $91,200. The budget for “seminars, fees, subscriptions and professional memberships” went up to $120,000 from $45,000. Travel expenses rose to $80,000 from $30,000, and “miscellaneous contingent projects” to $83,000 from $31,000.

On the bright side, the board did cut its allowance for “telephone and telegraph” from $6,647 to $6,565. Maybe that’s what Daley meant by dieting.

I asked Bond what all these accounts are supposed to cover and why the board boosted funding for them—as opposed to spending the money on something that would directly benefit students, like sports or art. Again, she said she would get back to me, but by press time she hadn’t.

So if Huberman cut 500 employees and $200 million in June, why aren’t these cuts reflected in the official budget the board passed two months later?

Bond said she’d get back to me on that too. She did assure me that cuts have been ongoing at the central office, including some made last week, though she has yet to provide me with anything other than press releases to back this up. She said her own department of communication has only nine employees even though it’s budgeted for 14. “These cuts will be reflected in next year’s budget,” she said.

Fair enough—and we’ll be watching. Of course, if next year’s budget is anything like this one, it will raise more questions than it answers.

Here’s another one raised by this year’s budget: the state board of education reports that Huberman makes $237,000 a year (which, if you’re wondering, makes him the 59th highest paid school administrator in Illinois, based on a survey of 855 districts). That’s $7,000 higher than what’s stated in the CPS budget.

Similarly, when Barbara Lumpkin, Mayor Daley’s former procurement chief, became the school district’s deputy CEO for external affairs last year, it was widely reported, by the Sun-Times and other sources, that her salary would be $154,000. Yet there’s no mention of a deputy CEO for external affairs anywhere in the budget—though there is a department of external affairs, which has 49 employees.

It’s not unusual for CEOs to pay an employee who works in one department out of a line item in a completely different department—it’s called administrative flexibility. For all we know, Huberman’s paying Lumpkin’s salary out of a line item in, oh, the Bureau of Food Services and Warehousing.

Except there’s no line item anywhere in the entire budget for a $154,000 salary.

In other words, it’s hard to state with confidence what any of these central office staffers are making. No wonder the system is in financial chaos—if I kept my checkbook like this I’d be bankrupt too.

So what do we make of all this? Well, as an old coot who’s been watching this game for a very long time, I can tell you it’s nothing new. When it comes to budgets, test scores, dropout rates—anything, really—you can’t take the central office’s word at face value. The truth is a work in progress. If it serves their purpose they’ll tell it one way. And if it doesn’t, they’ll tell it another.

I think Huberman’s taking a page from his old CTA playbook here: he wants to frighten the public into action. He started with tough talk in June, dutifully covered by the press, of central office cuts, which puts pressure on teachers and pensioners to make sacrifices. Then he followed up with gloom-and-doom projections about increasing class sizes from 30 to 37, firing thousands of teachers, and closing magnet schools and gifted programs. The point is to build public pressure until the teachers relent and the state sends more money.

Is the system really as broke as Huberman and Daley say it is? Who can tell when Huberman and the board are so chintzy about releasing figures and the figures they do release are so inconsistent?

I know that eliminating raises in the central office wouldn’t fill the budget gap, especially if it really is approaching $1 billion. But it’s hard to justify, say, eliminating sophomore sports—a move that affects thousands of kids—when the board (a) hasn’t announced how much that will save and (b) somehow or other can find more money for seminars, subscriptions, and professional membership fees.

Of course, Chicago is by no means the only school system cutting back in these hard economic times, as Huberman frequently points out. But if Huberman wants more state aid—or if he wants to justify salary and pension cuts—he should be better able to account for the money he’s already got. Including how much of it goes to his own salary.

After all, it’s not like they don’t have people in the central office to help him with that. Let’s see—they’ve got Financial Planning, Treasury, Corporate Accounting, Accounts Payable, and Management and Budget, with 132 employees between them.

Many of these bean counters got raises in this year’s budget. Could one of them tell us—even better, show us—how much Huberman actually makes?   v

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.