Not surprisingly, with the upheaval of over 50 school closings affecting 30,000 students and thousands of employees, CPS planning for its ten-year master facilities plan has been less than robust.
According to CPS officials, their outreach to schools is incomplete, and their community engagement section is piggy-backing on testimony at hearings on school closings, though the many thousands of parents who participated didn’t know that.
The ten-year master plan was mandated by the school facilities reform law passed unanimously by the General Assembly in 2011 to bring transparency to CPS’s school actions. A draft was originally due in January, but in December the legislature pushed the deadline back to May 1, with a final plan now due in October.
The law mandated close consultation with schools, and with other government agencies on plans for housing and economic development, resulting in a master plan that addresses the facility and space needs for every CPS school over a ten-year period.
Instead CPS e-mailed an online survey to principals and LSC chairs, but many schools have failed to respond, and the deadline for response has been extended, CPS planner John Ribolzi told a recent hearing of the legislature’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force , which overseens implementation of the facilities law.
According to his Linked-In profile, Ribolzi joined the CPS Office of Strategy Management last July after three years as vice president of a car-sharing company. Previously he was a sales manager for Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
Ribolzi told the task force that instead of specific school and community meetings on the facilities plan, testimony at recent community hearings on the district’s school closing process has been used to craft the community engagement section of the facilities plan.
He’s extracting comments regarding students’ social-emotional, health, and academic needs, as well as community and facilities issues, he said. “Any opportunity to hear feedback from the community on those five topics is what I’m targeting,” he said.
That’s problematic, task force members say, because parents and community members in the hearings focused on arguments for keeping their schools open — which was indeed the stated purpose of the hearings — and not on long-term issues.
“We were concerned with how that would be disaggregated, because there was so much going on with utilization,” said Nona Burney, a Roosevelt University education professor who represents Grand Boulevard Federation  on the task force.
“Parents [didn’t] know that they’re going into those spaces to talk about what’s going to happen in their neighborhoods for the next ten years,” said Cecile Carroll, a task force member from Blocks Together .
“The ten-year plan was supposed to look at population projections for the city, which CPS has not done for any of the neighborhoods yet,” she said. “We don’t know where there’s growth in our communities, and [whether] we will actually end up closing schools where they may be needed in the next five to ten years.”
Ribolzi said CPS has “multiple planners” gathering demographic data.
Closing schools, opening schools
At a press conference last week, leaders of the legisature’s black and Latino caucuses called for postponing school closings until a facilities plan is in place.
“We’re asking for a draft plan as stated in Public Act 970474,” said State Representative Ken Dunkin (D-5th), referring to the facilities reform law. “We appreciate maximum utilization of our resources, but talk to us and listen to the parents, the community stakeholders, the leaders. Listen to your own aldermen.”
It’s somewhat ironic that school and community testimony on utilization issues is being used for the facilities plan. In response to calls for a plan to guide school actions, CPS communications chief Becky Carroll “said the master facilities ten-year plan is a completely different process than the steps CPS is taking now to address the ‘utilization crisis,'” the Sun Times reported .
“The ten-year plan is…setting up a vision; it’s goal-setting around facilities in our district,” Becky Carroll said. “It has nothing to do with addressing the fact that our schools are severely underutilized….The steps we’re taking right now [are] to right-size the district.”
There’s a larger irony, too: the purpose of the school facilities law was to bring transparency to CPS’s planning.
Instead, according to advocates for neighborhood schools, the district is carrying out Mayor Emanuel’s long-term plan to close neighborhood schools and open charters.
They just aren’t talking to the public about it. And for the most part, the media is cooperating.
Reporting by Senah Yeboah-Sampong