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Back from the dead: school planning bill gets a hearing

A school planning bill which has been widely and repeatedly declared dead is scheduled for a hearing in the House executive committee on Wednesday.

SB 620, which passed the Senate by a wide margin in March, would require facilities and capital planning by CPS and guarantee advance notification and community consultation in school closings.

Strong bipartisan legislative support and strong pressure from community groups succeeded in pushing the bill forward despite strong opposition by Mayor Emanuel.

Emanuel was said to be personally calling legislators to oppose the bill.  But he failed to respond to repeated efforts by its sponsors to discuss changes that would address specific objections he might have, according to supporters of the bill.

His opposition appears to be more general, viewing guidelines on school actions and oversight by an independent commission as an imposition on his total mayoral control over CPS.

At a House education committee meeting in April, a CPS lobbyist cited “major, major concerns” but focused in particular on “unfunded mandates,” using a catch-phrase intended to appeal to Republicans and referring specifically to “the burden imposed on the school district by requiring audits and reports.”

Some basic rules

Republicans didn’t rise to the bait.  “There ought to be some basic rules on facility closings, rather than one reason for this school, another for that school,” said Rep. Jerry Mitchell (R-Rock Falls).

In fact, while CPS presents school closings as required by underutilization or financial pressure, they are driven by the need for buildings to house a poorly-planned explosion of new charter and other schools under Renaissance 2010.

“And they are looking for the better buildings and the better locations,” said Nonah Burney, a professor of education at Roosevelt who represented Grand Boulevard Federation on the task force.

The district wastes millions of dollars by moving schools around in an ad-hoc manner, she said.

There’s a lot of money at stake. CPS has been spending $1 billion a year on capital projects, according to the task force, yet more than half of CPS schools have had no capital improvements for five years.

“We should have a standard for safe, educationally appropriate facilities, a minimum for every building, and work up from there,” said Burney.

And we should plan for school closings with parents and communities in order to minimize the disruption to students’ academic progress, she said.

A long history

The bill has a long history, with schools struggling for repairs and communities opposing sudden closings, with school closings that have moved low-income children repeatedly and have often ratcheted up violence in schools.  CPS has repeatedly promised to fix the process and failed to do so.

The task force spent a year studying the issue.  It’s pure coincidence that a new mayor was elected as the process neared completion.

It could be that Emanuel would eventually institute better planning at CPS.  Last week he lectured 4th graders at Walsh Elementary about the importance of long-term planning before announcing an order requiring a long-term financial plan for the city. “It is our responsibility to make sure that we are spending the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars wisely,” he said, announcing the executive order.

But his commitment to expanding charters means that the underlying dynamic behind the annual seizure of school buildings will remain.  His failure to negotiate over the bill despite strong concerns on the part of legislators does not portend increased accountability.

At the April hearing, Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Sycamore) noted that he’d been asked to serve on the Chicago school facilities task force based on his experience on a downstate school board.  “It just appalled me all through this process that there has not been a basic level of communication” from CPS to parents and communities impacted by its decisions, he said.

“As we look at the bill…there’s a lot of process in there that small school districts have been doing for decades, where you have a master plan, where you communicate with the community and with teachers about what the plans are for the building,” he said.

In Chicago, “these very basic things haven’t been done.”

“I don’t see what the threat is,” said Burney.  “We’re not saying you can’t close schools.  We’re saying we want to watch you.  We want to know ahead of time.  We want you to know ahead of time.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

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Category: CPS, school closings, school facilities

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