Back-to-school summer parades and picnics dominated the West Side landscape last Sat. August 15, but beneath the festive veneer, many Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parents and students worried about the embattled district’s future.

Just last week, Standard & Poor’s became the last of the three major credit rating agencies to downgrade CPS’s bond rating to junk status. The agency cited the district’s reliance on nearly $500 million in highly uncertain state assistance, in addition to its decision to take on $200 million of more debt to pay down the debt payments it has due.

In July, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced significant leadership changes at top district posts, with the hope that fresh minds would resolve many of the district’s seemingly intractable financial and public relations problems.

Emanuel named his chief of staff, Forrest Claypool, to replace embattled former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who has been implicated in a federal investigation of a no-bid contract the Chicago Board of Education granted to a firm she once worked for. At the time, Emanuel also announced that former ComEd executive Frank Clark would replace David Vitale as chairman of the school board.

But Clark’s and Claypool’s ascendancies have only been met with more tension and uncertainty, with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) calling Claypool’s proposal to cut the district’s seven percent contribution to teacher pensions in order to shore up a more than $1 billion budget gap possibly strike-worthy. For his part, Claypool also cut $1 million of his own executive budget by laying off nine of his top aides.

Last month, the district announced that many of its public schools, including many on the West Side, will experience deep budget cuts. And attempts to save money and resources, such as changing the school bell times of many schools, may have created an even deeper climate of uncertainty.

For instance, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship High School, Austin Polytech High School, Douglass High School, Steinmetz College Prep High School and Voise High School will start and finish an hour later; while Frazier International Magnet Elementary School will start and end 15 minutes earlier.

Anthony Rayford, a resident of Austin, attended Ald. Michael Scott’s (24th) first annual back-to-school event in Douglass Park, 1401 N. Sacramento Dr.

“I feel [students] have been through enough changes already,” Rayford said. “I think we should just let them learn. Too many changes is not good.”

Monique Baker, also of Austin, was at Scott’s event with friends Janet Dickenson and her daughter Tiffany Jackson, both of Uptown. The younger Jackson is a student at Uplift Community School, which will start an hour later.

“I don’t want to get out of school at 4 p.m.,” the Uplift student said.

Baker said that, while she didn’t have any kids in CPS schools, she still felt the new start times were a bad idea.

“I don’t think they should get out late, anyway,” she said. “I don’t think it’s safe, especially with Safe Passages.”

Dickenson said she’s witnessed Safe Passage workers by her home “talking on the phone, doing anything except their jobs.”

Ald. Scott said he was aware of the concerns about shifting bell schedules and that his office is monitoring the situation.

“I haven’t had any of the principals [in 24th ward schools] reach out to me,” he said. “We want to make sure that every child gets to school on time and isn’t inconvenienced.”

But not everyone was against the new start times. Samuel Durst, who grew up in North Lawndale, said he didn’t see a problem with the changes.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it, so long as [students] are getting the same education,” he said, adding that he doesn’t, however, trust claims made by CPS about its budget shortfalls.

“Every time they raise taxes, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “How could you not have money? That, to me, is unbelievable. Somebody put the money in their pocket, that’s my opinion.”

Ceci Thompson, a resident of the West Side, said she had no opinion on the bell time changes. What’s more important, she said, is that students are in school. But she did note that CPS higher-ups should share the sacrifice they’re meting out on others.

“Why do they get to keep their salaries?” she asked.

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...