With the school utilization commission issuing an interim report – and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett responding to a parents group’s inquiry about school closings – the task force created last year by the legislature to monitor school facilities policy in Chicago is holding the first of four community hearings on Saturday.
The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force  hearing takes place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, January 12 at the New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington.
While it’s likely to provide a forum for wide-ranging community concerns about CPS school closing plans, the hearing is focused on gathering public input for the draft ten-year facilities master plan that’s due May 1.
As mandated by the legislature, that process is supposed to include input from every school in the district on its long-term educational vision and facility needs. But CPS has yet to unveil any plans to engage school communities in the process, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together , chair of CEFTF’s master planning committee.
That could be because CPS is focused on announcing a huge wave of school closings – before a long-term plan is done.
Community members “have told the task force that doing more school closings and drastic interventions before there’s a long-range plan in place is ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and just doesn’t make sense,” Carroll said.
In its interim report , the school utilization commission appointed by Byrd-Bennett in December calls on CPS to spare high-scoring and improving schools with low enrollments. And in order to reduce the risk of violent incidents, it calls for no closings of high schools.
Whether CPS would get around this by phasing out high schools rather than closing them outright remains to be seen. Phaseouts greatly diminish the experience of remaining students, according to recent testimony from students at Dyett High School, and new students would still be required to travel to unfamiliar neighborhoods.
The commission promises to look further into a range of issues: whether CPS is appropriately accounting for “ancillary” uses of classrooms; whether annexes could be closed in order to bring utilization rates up; how CPS plans to dispose of vacant property; and even whether CPS is accurately counting the number of rooms in its buildings.
The commission will meet with eight CPS community action councils. And responding to the commission’s request, CPS has announced it will hold two dozen community meetings to discuss specific schools threatened with closing.
The report endorses the rationale for closing schools, which many critics have challenged, and even seems to high-ball the estimate for savings from closing schools. According to the commission’s report, a Pew Trusts analysis  found “districts usually realize less than $1 million in annual savings for each closed school in the short term.”
In fact the report says that average annual savings are “well under $1 million,” and gives figures for four districts, none of which comes close to $1 million.
CPS has publicly said it expects annual savings of $500,000 to $800,000 for each closed school. But in a planning document disclosed by the Chicago Tribune  last month, CPS gave a much lower range — $140,000 to $675,00 per school annually, including capital and operating costs. That’s if it succeeds in selling nearly half those buildings, a goal which the Pew report suggests is impractical.
Meanwhile costs associated with closings for transition costs – severance pay, transportation, security – are estimated at $155 million to $450 million, enough to wipe out most and possibly all of ten years of savings from closing 100 schools.
In other stories CPS has projected saving as much as $2.5 billion by avoiding deferred maintenance on old buildings, but that’s a little hard to credit when the district also plans to open 100 new schools .
So perhaps a hard, realistic look at CPS’s projected savings – rather than a vague wave at a national study – is called for.
The commission rejects concerns from Raise Your Hand  and other parent groups over how CPS measures school utilization.
The report seems to reflect some confusion over classroom sizes for special education students, suggesting that the limit of 13 students per room applies only to 14 schools that are fully dedicated to special education. The commission does not seem to understand the difference between resource classrooms used for pull-out sessions and self-contained classrooms used for full instructional programs for students with disabilities within neighborhood schools, Rod Estvan of Access Living  has commented .
According to the report, the upcoming phase of the commission’s inquiry will ask, “Does CPS have sufficient capacity to close multiple schools in one year safely and efficiently?”
That’s a question the Sun Times has asked , noting that “even under the best of circumstances, CPS rarely pull off a complex task well.” The concern is underscored by a recent exchange between Raise Your Hand and Byrd-Bennett.
Raise Your Hand asks  about its contention that the district’s utilization formula exaggerates the number of “empty seats,” and whether CPS is considering adjusting it. Byrd-Bennett says no ; the number of “empty seats” is based on “ideal capacity” of 30 kids per room, not the upper limit of efficient utilization.
Asked about special ed and bilingual students, Byrd-Bennett seems to implicitly acknowledge that the one-size-fits-all standard for non-homeroom uses penalizes schools with larger populations of special needs students. She says CPS is “willing to work with the principals of underutilized schools to ensure that we understand any unique situations.”
Finally, asked when she will “provide an analysis of the specific impact of last year’s 17 school actions on the 7,700 effected students,” Byrd-Bennett replies, “we are only halfway through the school year, and a true picture of these schools won’t be complete until the end of the school year.”
For months CEFTF has been requesting information on how transitions were planned and implemented for schools that were closed and subjected to other actions. In August, according to task force records, CPS was unable to even identify which staff had led transition planning. CPS has also been unable to identify which schools students ended up attending.
The new facilities law requires CPS to identify and commit specific resources for the first full year of transition to support the academic, social and emotional needs of students. But for hundreds of homeless students impacted by the closings, support services that should have been provided for the entire year were available one day a week for the first few weeks of the school year.
And that effort seems to have been focused on making sure students’ records made their way to their new schools.
By law, parents were supposed to have to opportunity to visit receiving schools and alternatives. How many did? CPS can’t say.
CEFTF wants a full evaluation of what planning was done, how parents were informed of their options, what support was given students and where they ended up. CPS has been unable to provide this.
Byrd-Bennett is content to wait until the end of the year, when test scores are available, to get an idea of how 7,700 student have fared. In the meantime, she wants to put 35,000 students through school closings, hoping for the best.