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Ballooning costs: Chicago Public Schools spends $600,593 on inflatable displays

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Chicago Public Schools has spent an increasing amount of taxpayer funds on balloon displays in the last five years. The school district has put more than half a million dollars toward elaborate displays for events and celebrations in that time.

The district has in recent years rapidly inflated its budget for balloon displays to mark occasions like back-to-school, graduation or Black History Month, according to CPS supplier payment data reviewed by Chalkboard.

District-provided data show CPS payments for the decorations have swelled: The district spent less than $15,000 for balloon-focused vendors in fiscal year 2019, but for 2023, payments grew to over $278,000. The district has also spent over $142,400 during the current fiscal year on balloon services.

The district has spent $600,593.29 on balloon-related vendors since 2019. In fiscal year 2022, the district spent $92,275.35 on balloon suppliers, and it spent $49,183.98 on them the year before. In 2020, the district put $23,828.38 toward decorative display providers.

CPS supplier information does not immediately show exactly what services were offered and instead provides a yearly look at how much was paid to each one. Chalkboard tallied payments to providers paid in the last five years that primarily offer balloon designs with examples on social media showing their work.

Current suppliers paid during this fiscal year include: Balloons By Frenchie, Balloons For Everything, OOO Balloons, Board for Balloons, BrownSugar’s Balloon Designs & Academy, JoJo the Balloon and Flower Lady, Marie’s Balloons and The Balloon Queens.

Many vendors also say they offer services like event planning, floral arrangements or gifts that could have also been rendered to the district. But photos posted to CPS social media show elaborate balloon displays that match photos posted by vendors. BrownSugar’s Balloon Designs & Academy, for example, also says it offers chair rentals in addition to balloon designs.

In some cases, vendors posted photos of work done in CPS schools and included their CPS vendor number on their website, highlighting the unique cottage industry of school suppliers looking for business with schools in the district. The images typically show balloon arches, columns, words or backdrops in or outside CPS schools.

In August last year, for example, CPS held a Healing-Centered Conference put on by the Office of Social and Emotional Learning for staff featuring balloon displays and columns throughout the school, according to a photo posted to Facebook by the district.

In November, the CPS Champions Celebration featured a giant balloon photo backdrop that says “CPS” and “Champions.” And photos of a January voter registration event by the Get Out To Vote (GOTV) 4 Teens Coalition also show balloon displays in the background.

One current vendor, Maries’ Balloons, says that as of June 2024, “orders are accepted only from CPS and local schools.” It was paid $65,890 in 2023 and $28,763 so far in the current fiscal year, according to CPS’ supplier payment data.

On its website, Maries’ Balloons shows elaborate balloon arches and columns for Black History Month at several different CPS school buildings. Maries’ Balloons also does back-to-school balloon columns and bunches of balloons for CPS’ back-to-school parade float, according to images on its website.

One vendor, Bronze Balloons, says it offers “premium balloon decor” and entices administrators to use them with a complementary site visit.

“Bronze Balloons is an official CPS vendor,” the business says on its website. “We love working with schools to bring color, fun, and flair to all of your most memorable events. Graduations, homecomings, back-to-school, open house…look no further…Bronze Balloons has your school covered!”