There’s an awful lot of confusion around the CPS’s new commission on school utilization.
There’s confusion over administration claims of an enrollment crisis, as WBEZ has detailed  – and, as at least one CPS official has acknowledged, there are strikingly different ways of estimating the number of “empty seats.” There’s confusion on the part of parents and educators testifying before the commission with no idea whether their schools are threatened, as the Tribune notes .
There’s confusion on whether CPS’s five-year moratorium on school closings only covers school closings due to underutilization; whether a shelved-for-now plan to have charters take over neighborhood schools will be revived; how much money closing schools really saves; and, especially, just why CPS continues to roll out new charters while citing enrollment declines and budget deficits to insist on closing neighborhood schools.
There’s also widespread confusion over just how independent this “independent commission” is.
Even among the people naming and chairing the commission, there’s confusion. CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the purpose is to come up with a list of schools to close; commission chair Frank Clark has repeatedly promised only a “broad set of recommendations” for how to address the issue.
In one recent Tribune article , Byrd-Bennett said she’s expecting a list of schools to close from the commission, and CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll said it’s “up to them [the commissioners] – we don’t know at this point” what they’ll recommend.
Behind the commission’s charge is a lot of talk, especially from Byrd-Bennett, about restoring trust. But merely delivering a list of school closings — without taking seriously widespread concerns about the assumptions behind CPS’s policy of closing schools — will just engender more cynicism.
Is the commission going to acknowledge and address serious questions about CPS’s facilities policies, or is it just providing political cover for a foregone conclusion?
A rapidly shrinking crisis
“The accuracy of how CPS calculates school utilization” is one of the “key issues the commission must consider,” according to a Sun Times editorial  last month.
Indeed. In mid-October, Mayor Emanuel was saying  there are 200,000 “empty seats” in CPS – 600,000 seats for 400,000 students; by the end of October, the crisis had eased by half , with only 100,000 empty seats out of 500,000 total.
Maybe there was a rush sale of classroom chairs?
Then new census numbers were rolled out, with CPS touting Chicago’s loss  of 145,000 school-age children over the past decade. But CTU pointed out that  CPS’s actual enrollment had declined by just 31,500 in that period – during which CPS added 50,000 new seats, mainly in charter schools.
It’s simple, according to WBEZ : a higher proportion of Chicago’s kids are attending CPS than ten years ago. (Among other factors, this could reflect the closing of scores of Catholic schools and lower dropout rates.) But it’s a lot less dire.
Meanwhile, Jeanne Marie Olson, a CPS parent and systems analyst who’s part of the Raise Your Hand  coalition, dug into the school utilization formula, which identifies underutilized schools and is behind estimates of “empty seats.”
She points out  that the range considered “efficient enrollment” takes CPS’s recommended maximum number of students per class as the midpoint, and extends it by 20 percent in either direction. So enrollment at a school with 36 students in each classroom – 20 percent higher than the district’s class size policy recommends, and wildly imappropriate, for elementary schools particularly – is considered “efficient.”
(Chicago has the largest class sizes in Illinois, which is one of a minority of states without legal class size limits; but a class size targets as high as 36 is remarkable even among big-city districts. New York City has a “target capacity”  of 20 students in K-3 classrooms; and instead of CPS’s range of 80 to 120 percent, New York’s “programming efficiency” range is 75 to 90 percent, giving a “standard classroom potential capacity” for those grades of 15 to 18 students. In CPS the range is 24 to 36.)
How many “empty seats,” really?
Recalculating enrollment levels for elementary schools using the CPS maximum as the top number for efficient enrollment, Olson found far more overcrowded schools and far fewer with underenrollment.
With an efficiency range reflecting class size policy, she found, the number of underutilized elementary schools drops from 50 percent to 38 percent; more significantly, the number of elementary schools at less than 50 percent underutilization – the point where school closings are considered — drops from 20 percent to just 8 percent.
And instead of 62,695 “empty seats,” there are just 7,467.
So with a more realistic and humane utilization standard, we could be looking not at 100,000 “empty seats” but something closer to 15,000 district-wide. [A new analysis by RYH puts the total district-wide number at 25,000.] This “crisis” seems to fade by the week.
At a hearing of the General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force  where Olson presented her findings last week, CPS business operations manager James Dispensa argued that the space utilization formula doesn’t correlate to class size and is designed instead to reflect how resources are allocated to schools.
He pointed out that one problem with underutilized schools is that, because they lose staffing positions with enrollment, they tend to have overcrowded classrooms.
Olson argued that class size issues are central to space utilization, since the district’s formula is based on the number of kids per homeroom.
At the hearing, CPS public affairs director Michael Rendina said that perhaps the space utilization formula needed to be adjusted.
For many months, the legislature’s facilities task force has been arguing that the district’s space utilization formula doesn’t meet the requirements of the 2011 facilities reform law, mandating consideration of age and grade, educational program, and uses by after-school programs and public and community agencies.
But Substance reports  that at one hearing, Commissioner Terrence Hilliard revealed that he hadn’t heard of the task force. This is quite remarkable.
CEFTF has been doing research, holding public hearings, and engaging CPS for a couple of years. It has raised a series of concerns about CPS’s failure to abide by the 2011 law – for one thing, its inability to monitor the impact ofthe most recent school actions on 7,700 affected students. Hopefully commission members will acquaint themselves with this work.
They may not want to rely solely on State Senator Iris Martinez, a member of both the commission and the task force, however: she recently was reported reciting CPS talking points  about census figures and empty seats. These are among the assumptions that need to be examined.
At its most recent hearing, CEFTF co-chair State Representative Cynthia Soto announced plans to hold monthly “Second Saturday” community hearings to give LSCs a chance to testify on utilization and facilities issues – including cases where CPS school utilization reports have faulty data.
Another essential task for the Commission on School Utilization, according to the Sun Times, is to “verify CPS’s estimates of school-closing savings.” Indeed, there’s a good bit of confusion around this.
CPS says they’ll save $500,000 to $800,000 for each school they close. Where do the savings come from? District spokesperson Becky Carroll told Sarah Karp of Catalyst  that “savings generally come from eliminating those positions that go with the building itself – a principal, clerk, maybe custodian. Other savings generally come from reduced utility, maintenance and repairs costs.”
But the Rosalind Rossi reports at the Sun Times , “To achieve any savings, Carroll said, closed buildings would have to be leased out or sold.” In fact, that’s been the experience of other districts.
As Karp points out, “selling buildings has been a particular challenge as many times closed buildings are in poor neighborhoods where property values aren’t high. Also, vacant school buildings often don’t have other uses, and are expensive to tear down in order to repurpose the land.”
She cites a national study that found that school districts actually saved far less than they projected by closing schools; in some cases, savings were negligible.
According to a recent report from CEFTF’s long-range planning subcommittee, estimates of savings from school closings in Washington D.C. failed to take into account the costs of closings –costs including loss of property value, relocating or disposing of equipment, demolition or continuing maintenance of buildings, transportation for students, and displaced student services – costs which “negated DC Public School’s projections that school closings would save money.”
One theme at the Clark commission hearing last week at St. Sabina’s is that neighborhoods already struggling with abandoned homes don’t need the hulking eyesores of abandoned school buildings.
Parking meters redux?
Closed schools won’t go to charters because they’ll be sold or leased, according to Byrd-Bennett. But with social services struggling, Catholic schools closing, and a depressed housing market, it’s hard to picture a market for old school buildings – unless it’s a venture capital operation such as that floated two years ago by Bruce Rauner, Mayor Emanuel’s best billionaire buddy. According to Greg Hinz , Rauner projected using private equity and debt to purchase 100 old schools and lease them back to charters.
If that’s the plan – public facilities sold to private parties and leased back to taxpayer-funded entities – we deserve to know about it now. It sounds a lot like a recent parking meter deal.
Even in the unlikely event that CPS’s projections of savings came true, savings from 100 school closings would only reduce the district’s operating budget by about 1 percent – or the $1 billion deficit by 5 to 8 percent. (The real reduction savings would likely be half that or less.)
CPS’s budget crisis isn’t caused by overcapacity; it’s largely caused by the district’s failure to make contributions to its pension fund. And “right-sizing” CPS will entail massive disruption and without getting the district anywhere near right-sizing its budget.
Part two  examines charter expansion, community partners, and planning.