Scene at John M. Smyth Magnet School, 1059 W. 13th St., June 7, 2011. New Chicago Public School CEO Jean-Claude Brizard met with principals this day as part of his citywide listening tour. (E. Jason Wambsgans/ Chicago Tribune)

Scene at John M. Smyth Magnet School, 1059 W. 13th St., June 7, 2011. New Chicago Public School CEO Jean-Claude Brizard met with principals this day as part of his citywide listening tour. (E. Jason Wambsgans/ Chicago Tribune) (August 19, 2011)

The annual budget for Chicago’s public school system is dense and complex, but one underlying fact stood apart from the rest: Over the last decade, CPS’ student enrollment has steadily declined while costs grew substantially. Why does it cost a school district more money each year to educate fewer students?

Answering that question wasn't as simple as we might have hoped. While expenses on classroom instruction have grown, they have not grow at the rate of expenses outside the classroom –- rising costs for employees, fuel and utilities, building maintenance, pension and health care payments, required state programs,

We had begun interviewing sources looking for an explanation of the district's mess when CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley walked into our newsroom bearing some of the answers -- they'd been scheduled to appear at a meeting with the Tribune editorial board on Thursday.

(CPS also released on Thursday the standardized test score results of 2011's high school students. Another wrinkle in the story presented itself -- after spending all this money, the district had done little to move the arrow academically.)

In the kind of magic that only happens in journalism, the pieces of the story were all coming together: Financial results, officials to explain them, test results showing bottom-line impact ...

Less happy was the picture they revealed: A stark portrait of urban education.

There's a record deficit projected for next year: $712 million. In order to close that gap, officials had to strip teachers of the 4 percent cost-of-living increases agreed to in contracts signed when times were good. Officials also carved out $320 million in other cuts by re-working other contracts, laying off teachers and employees inside the central office, and cutting a number of popular education programs inside and outside the classroom.

Correcting the school district’s financial woes could require a complete overhaul of the system, closing schools that are under-enrolled or failing academically.

And it may also require a complete re-thinking about how we fund public education.   

-- Joel Hood and Noreen Ahmed-Ullah