MEDIA WATCH: Civic Federation much more critical of CPS budget process than Sun-Times, Tribune report

After blacking out news of the greatest outpouring of testimony during the annual hearings on the Chicago Board of Education's $6.5 billion "Proposed Budget, 2010 - 2011," the Chicago Sun-Times finally got around to mentioning the budget in a brief story on Monday, August 23, 2010, two days before the Chicago Board of Education will vote on the massive budget. More than 450 people turned out for the budget hearings at Lane Technical High School (August 17), Westinghouse High School (August 18), and Corliss High School (August 19), but nobody in Chicago would have known about the unprecedented turnout by reading the daily newspapers or consulting the TV news reports. Only WBEZ radio, Socialist Worker, and Substance covered the hearings in some detail, only Substance reporting on all three nights and many of the speakers.

Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation (above, at the August 2008 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education) expressed major criticisms of the way in which CPS presented its budget to the public. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.On Monday, August 23, the Sun-Times finally mentioned the massive budget, but only to report that the Civic Federation "supports" the proposed budget. On August 23, the Sun-Times reported ('Civic group gives CPS budget cool OK" by Rosalind Rossi) as follows:

"The Civic Federation today voiced support for a new Chicago Public Schools budget, but fretted that it was patched together with 'finding cliffs', one-time revenues and the exhaustion of a reserve piggy bank..."

But the Civic Federation was much more critical of the CPS budget process than anyone would learn by reading the Sun-Times. Thanks to the Internet, people can read the lengthy Civic Federation report for themselves. The report, entitled Chicago Public Schools — FY 2011 budget, analysis and recommendations" is available at: /publications/chicago-public-schools-fy2011-budget-analysis-and-recommendations.

The full report is 75 pages long. Although the Civic Federation did not publicly testify at the hearings from August 17 through August 19, they were clearly monitoring the events and the rising public participation. The Civic Federation's recommendation on how CPS can improve transparency in the budget process echo the complaints that were made during the hearings by dozens of citizens. People complained about the lack of accessibility of the budget books, the failure of members of the Chicago Board of Education and Board executives to attend the hearings, and the unwillingness of CPS budget officials to answer citizens' questions during the hearings.

The text of the Civic Federation's recommendations for improving the budget process and transparency follows:

Improve Budget Process Transparency

The Civic Federation recommends that CPS improve the transparency of its budget process by revising its public comment procedures, making improvements to its annual budget document and providing clear explanations of Tax Increment Financing funds and Intergovernmental Agreements.

Revise Public Comment Process

The Civic Federation recommends that CPS consider revising its public comment process to allow for greater consideration of stakeholder input. Currently CPS provides four opportunities for public comment on its annual budget: three meetings at locations around the City of Chicago at which District staff hears comments about the annual budget proposal from the public. A stenographer is present to record the remarks. The fourth public comment period occurs at the board meeting immediately preceding the Board of Education’s vote on the budget. Answers are not immediately provided for questions posed at any of the hearings but CPS staff says answers will be posted on the District’s website in a timely fashion.

The Federation recommends three revisions to this public comment process.

First, key decision makers should attend each public hearing. The Chief Executive Officer, the Board President and all Board Members should attend each hearing to provide constituents with an opportunity to present issues to those who have the final say on the District’s policies. Most other governments in the region require the Board members to be present at public budget hearings and hold these meetings several days, or weeks, prior to the governing body voting on the budget. We believe that this type of public comment system is preferable to CPS’s current system as it allows members of the governing board sufficient time to consider the opinions of various stakeholders before making a final decision.

Second, the Federation recommends that the District implement a real-time process for working with constituents to answer the questions raised at the hearings. Recognizing that most questions or concerns cannot be solved during the hearing, we recommend following the City of Chicago model for answering questions posed during its annual preliminary budget hearings. City Department Heads are present at each hearing and constituents have an opportunity to raise concerns at the meeting. When appropriate, the speaker can be directed to the department head to handle their issue one-on-one at the conclusion of the comment period. This process allows

27 Information provided to the Civic Federation in meeting with CPS Finance and Budget staff, members the public to make a connection within the organization and have a meaningful opportunity to follow-up on their concern.

Third, a greater effort should be made to provide hard copies of the budget for all members of the public who request one. While understanding that printed copies are an additional cost to the District, the Federation believes the difficulty for some people of reading the budget document on a computer, along with the policy objective of making the budget document as accessible as possible to the taxpaying public, outweigh the cost concern.

Finally, we recommend that the District post the transcripts of each hearing online. The public may benefit from having an opportunity to read the issues discussed at each hearing, regardless of their ability to attend the session.

Continue to Improve Budget Format

The Civic Federation recommends that the District produce detailed sections regarding both tax increment financing district (TIF) and Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) revenues in its forthcoming budget documents. The District should create stand alone sections in its annual budget document that explain the interaction of TIF districts and CPS, and how the money generated by TIF districts is appropriated to CPS. The same should be done for Intergovernmental Agreements entered into by CPS with other units of local government, such as the City of Chicago.

There is growing concern over the accessibility of information about TIF districts, as voiced at the District’s annual public hearings. It is important to provide taxpayers with an accurate picture of how their tax dollars are being used. The Civic Federation urges the District to provide citizens with a more complete picture of how TIF and IGA revenues affect the District’s annual budgets.


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