The promise of a five-year “moratorium” on school closings – “announced” by new CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and “endorsed” by Mayor Emanuel – has all the fingerprints of a master at political gamesmanship.
The Tribune  is certainly right that the offer is intended “to help sell drastic school closings this year.” And CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle is certainly right that it’s intended to push the closings as far as possible from the 2015 mayoral election, as she tells the Sun Times .
It would also seem to take away a major issue that drives the grassroots school reform movement here, which is the biggest challenge to Emanuel’s domination. It even co-opts their call for a moratorium.
But for all its political oomph, it’s lacking in other areas – including basic logic, as Julie Woestehoff of PURE  points out.
If “chaotic, disorganized closings are such a bad idea,” as Emanuel said in backing the idea, why demand yet one more round of them before you agree to stop, she asks at PURE’s blog . “It sounds as if the mayor is saying, ‘I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches.'”
She points out that parents have heard promises of community engagement time after time, and that the argument that school closings are necessary to close the district’s budget gap don’t measure up to reality (as Sarah Karp has detailed in Catalyst ).
Byrd-Bennett’s insistence that the closing of 100 or so schools has nothing to do with the plan to open 60 new charters also strains credulity.
There are also basic practical and policy problems. Most immediate is the problem of deadlines at schools that require applications. One reason the legislature imposed the December 1 deadline for announcing school actions was to allow parents to consider those options.
Is CPS going to push the application deadline back to May, after the board votes on 100 school closings? When are parents going to find out where their kids are going next year? How much uncertainty and confusion is going to flow from this purely political edict?
Then there’s the utilization standard that CPS uses, which is deeply flawed . If the new commission studying that issue were to come up with meaningful reforms, they would take more than a few weeks to implement – though they could provide a much more accurate picture of the district’s building use.
On top of that, CPS is asking the state legislature to move back the January deadline for a draft of a ten-year facilities master plan – so the wholesale closing of 100 or more schools would be done with no assessment of the future needs of the school districts or the communities being impacted.
Today CPS claims it has 100,000 “empty seats.” A year ago the figure was 80,000; a year before that, 230,000. It all depends where you set the “data point.”
Compared to other school districts, CPS’s method of measuring utilization is “really rudimentary,” indeed, “almost primitive,” said Mary Filardo, a school facilities expert with the 21st Century Schools Fund  who works with districts around the country. She’s also a pro-bono consultant with the state legislature’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force .
At CPS, someone downtown fills in the number of classrooms and the number of students. One-quarter of a school’s classrooms are allowed to be “ancillary” – going for “non-homeroom uses” like art, science or computer labs, recreation rooms if there’s no gym, and other purposes. All the rest are expected to have 30 students. If it’s a kindergarten class with 21 students, those are nine “empty seats.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Filardo. It doesn’t matter if the room actually has 18 pre-K students or if it’s a self-contained special ed room with five autistic students – those rooms have 12 and 25 “empty seats” respectively. There’s no accounting for whether the school has a gym or lunchroom or playground, or whether a classroom converted to a science lab can fit the same number of bodies as a classroom full of desks.
[Indeed, the legislation governing utilization standards  requires CPS to consider “the requirements of elementary and secondary programs, shared campuses, after-school programming, the facility needs, grade and age ranges of attending students, and use of school buildings by governmental agencies and community organizations.” CPS’s standards do none of this; it’s not hard to see why CETF has charged that CPS isn’t meeting the requirements of the law.]
Other districts have “far more sophisticated” approaches to utilization, she said, accounting for how each room is being used. Some districts even have standards that provide for smaller class sizes in high-poverty schools, which is what research recommends.
New York City publishes a detailed report on utilization  in its 1,500 schools every year. (“It’s important to understand that a building’s capacity changes” as grade configurations and programs shift, Filardo points out. “Capacity is a function of programming.”) It’s based on surveys by principals who report the function of each room in the building. Capacity is calculated differently by grade, room size, and program use.
If CPS were to shift to a utilization standard that better measures capacity – which it should – it would take more than three months to design and implement.
Filardo has a very general, big-picture measure of CPS’s overall capacity (you can find it in CETF’s final report ): Chicago has 624 school buildings with a total of roughly 60 million square feet. With 400,000 students, that’s about 96 square feet per student.
That’s far below what’s found in other districts, where the national averages range from a low of 125 square feet per student in elementary schools to 156 in the top 25 percent; in high schools, where class sizes are larger but programming more varied, it’s even higher, ranging from 156 square feet per student to 185 in the top quadrant.
It might be time to take another look at this year’s mantra of “100,000 empty seats.”
The Raise Your Hand  coalition just unveiled a data base on elementary schools which reveals that 76 percent of CPS elementary schools have at least one overcrowded classroom.
Principals and LSCs have been doing “walkthroughs” to check on CPS utilization reports for their schools, and many are reporting that CPS didn’t even get the number of rooms in the school right, according to Jackie Leavy, an adviser for CETF and longtime community activist.
“We found several schools listed as underutilized that had overcrowded classrooms,” said Lashawn Brown of CPS’s South Shore Community Advisory Council. One school that had very low teacher-student ratios on the state report card had 44 kids in a third grade class, she said.
She said principals sometimes accept larger class sizes as the price of an additional art or music teacher.
“I really believe schools should have a chance to have art and music and computer labs,” Brown said. Determining utilization “needs to be a more thoughtful process that focuses on the children and their needs.”
Dwayne Truss of the Austin CAC did walkthroughs at five Austin elementary schools and writes at Austin Talks  that he found many CPS utilization reports that “contained inaccurate data.”
One issue he raises: schools in low-income areas get federal Title 1 funds, and principals can elect to use them to reduce class sizes. Under CPS’s utilization formula, their buildings are rated educationally “inefficient.”
“With CPS’ formula of 30 children per classroom, is CPS stating that using Title 1 funds to reduce class size in [schools] serving students from impoverished, high crime, high unemployment communities a ‘bad thing?'” he asks. These schools are most definitely using their space effectively, he insists.
One school he visited, Mays Elementary, makes full educational use of the “ancillary” classrooms its allotted by CPS. In addition, six rooms are used by the YMCA for an after-school program, which serves 175 kids. (Such use by community agencies to bring services and provide enrichment in underserved communities is “a best practice,” Leavy said.)
Figure in the six rooms for the after-school program and Mays’ space utilization rate goes from 45 percent to 54 percent, even by CPS’s broad standard of 30 students in a class. In reality, class sizes at Mays range from 18 in Kindergarten to 32 in 8th grade. Scores at Mays have been rising steadily, in some subjects dramatically, over several years.
Austin has been hit hard by foreclosures, but Truss insists the neighborhood is “going to come back.” That’s another problem: making permanent facility decisions under the spur of an immediate financial crisis and absent any long-range planning.
“Planning is a really critical part of budgeting and particularly in making infrastructure decisions,” said Filardo. “If you’re going to close something permanently, that’s a long-term judgment, and you want to have a plan.”
Instead CPS has dragged its feet on drafting a ten-year facilities master plan, and is now asking the legislature to postpone the due date.
Filardo said the school facility reform legislation  mandating the ten-year plan required intergovernmental and inter-agency collaboration, which she calls crucial. “Municipal planning and educational planning really need to be linked,” she said.
“The neighborhoods where they are closing schools are going to come back from the foreclosure crisis; there’s going to be infill development in the neighborhoods where public housing was demolished,” said Leavy. “Nothing is as constant in Chicago as neighborhood change.”
She points to one of the first schools CPS closed ten years ago and one of the few to be demolished: Jacob Riis Elementary, just west of UIC. “Today there’s all kinds of development going on there.”
“Tearing down a school costs tens of millions of dollars because they were so well built in the 1920s, and it’s going to cost way more than that to build the new school you’re going to need to serve that redevelopment,” she said. School construction costs have risen dramatically in the past two decades.
“There are lots of way to be penny wise and pound foolish,” she said. One is “making public policy for the short term.”
And, she points out, “the idea that ‘right-sizing the district’ is going to be some kind of fiscal magic bullet has not been proven at all….Other urban districts haven’t saved a lot of money” by closing schools. (In Washington D.C., Karp reports, school closings actually produced no savings.)
“Responsible use of public assets and taxpayer money needs to be based on facts,” she said.
Under Emanuel, a politically-driven, needlessly adversarial drive for a longer school day left lots of confusion  and little space for collaboration and planning over the past year, and ultimately led to Chicago’s first school strike  in 25 years. Top-down political domination of the school district has led to shifting personnel throughout the CPS administration and “chaos on Clark Street.”
Now a political drive to remove legal protections for school communities and schoolchildren – 30,000 of whom could be affected if 100 schools are closed – threatens more chaos, with decisions based on flawed data, and with no consideration given to long-term impacts.