school closings – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop Chicago Community Stories Mon, 19 Feb 2018 15:45:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 No celebration: Chicagoans protest police, schools Tue, 27 Aug 2013 23:44:43 +0000 Two dovetailing protests will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in Chicago on Wednesday — a march on the Board of Education by a citywide coalition of community groups at 10 a.m., and a march on City Hall demanding accountability for police killings directly afterward.

Both protests emphasize how far we still have to go to address racial inequality, and both call for the creation of elected bodies to oversee local agencies — an elected school board and an elected civilian police accountability council.


A dozen community organizations have called for a one-day school boycott and will march on the Board of Education at 10 a.m. demanding an end to the destabilization of neighborhood schools and recognition of the human right to a safe, quality education for every child.

They are calling for an elected school board and reallocation of TIF funds to stop budget cuts.

“Our schools are still very segregated and very unequal,” said Sarah Simmons of Parents For Teachers.  Suburban and selective enrollment schools have a full range of programs while students at Dyett High School in Washington Park are forced to take art and phys ed classes online, she said.

After heavy budget cuts, Kelly High School has two art teachers for 2,700 students and no library, said Israel Munoz, a recent Kelly grad who helped organize the new Chicago Students Union and is now headed to college.

Adolphous McDowell, a longtime school activist with KOCO, places Mayor Emanuel’s educational policies in the context of the backlash against the civil rights movement — noting that we’re still struggling to fulfill the promises of Reconstruction, when newly enfranchised black legislators created public education systems in southern states where they’d never existed.

One reaction to school desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s was the shift of public funding to white-only private schools in the South; later President Reagan pushed vouchers as a way to shift public funds to private school operators, McDowell said.

All those efforts “are coming to pass with charter schools,” he said.

Wednesday’s protest is the kickoff of a 25-city campaign to stop school closings and charter expansions.

Working with the national coalition Journey for Justice, Chicago students and parents have filed civil rights complaints against CPS and testified this January at a hearing on school closings at the U.S. Department of Education.


The local chapter of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression is leading a Peoples March on City Hall for Peace and Justice, highlighting the call for police accountability.  After gathering at the Federal Plaza at 11 a.m., they’ll march to City Hall for a 12 noon rally.

Since 2009, 70 Chicagoans have been killed by police, often in very questionable circumstances, said Ted Pearson of NAARPR.    Many police victims are shot in the back, he said.

Not a single officer has been charged for these killings, he said.

Investigations by the Independent Police Review Authority are “ineffective,” he said.  IPRA can only make recommendations to the Police Board or turn over evidence to the State’s Attorney.  “Anita Alvarez does nothing with these cases,” he said.  “She just sits on them.”

He points to the case of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old shot by an off-duty detective in Douglas Park in March 2012.  The officer claimed a young man pointed a gun at him, but he was holding a cellphone, said Pearson.  Alvarez charged the young man — who was shot in the hand by Detective Dante Servin — with aggravated assault.  Charges were dropped when Servin failed to appear for a hearing.

Servin has not been charged and remains on the police force. This spring the City Council approved a $4.5 million settlement with Boyd’s family.

Pearson said the issue of police killings gets little mainstream attention “but in the black community it’s a hot-button issue.”

“It’s common to hear people say the police are just a gang like any other gang, the only difference is they get away with it,” he said.  “They take the law into their own hands.”

The alliance’s legislative proposal to establish an elected civilian police control board is modeled on a measure that was enacted by Berkeley, California, in the 1980s, he said.

Buses are bringing protestors from Englewood, Washington Park, Woodlawn, Lawndale, Garfield Park, Austin, Pilsen, Little Village, Hegewisch, Humboldt Park, and Rogers Park.

Gary Younge has a new book from Chicago’s Haymarket Press on The Speech, about the background of Martin Luther King’s famous oration fifty years ago.  “The speech was profoundly and willfully misunderstood,” theologian Vincent Harding, a colleague of King’s tells Younge in an adaptation published in the Nation.

Younge points to one sentence often overlooked today — and which could serve as a rejoinder to Emanuel’s austerity agenda:  while blacks remain “on a lonely island of poverty,” King said, “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Don Rose, one of the Chicago organizers of the March on Washington, underscores this point in his latest Chicago Daily Observer column.  But given Wednesday’s agenda, last week’s column is also germane:

“There are so many twists and turns in Rahm Emanuel’s school plans it’s hard to figure out exactly what he has in mind—apart from wrecking the Chicago Teachers Union. He sure doesn’t seem to be helping the kids, which should be his first order of business.”

After the school closing vote Thu, 23 May 2013 03:52:59 +0000 With the school board voting to close 50 neighborhood schools — to nobody’s surprise — the movement that sprang up in opposition moves to a new phase.

One indication: while the board was meeting, eight activists were arrested in Springfield blocking the entrance of legislative chambers, demanding the General Assembly pass a moratorium blocking the closings.

Participating were members of Action Now, Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

“We’re going to keep up the momentum to stop school closings,” said Aileen Kelleher of Action Now.  “There will definitely be more large-scale actions.”

“There’s a legislative strategy and a street strategy,” said Jitu Brown of KOCO.  “We are organizing in our communities to stand up for our children, to stand against disinvestment — which is what this is.”

Said Brown: “They are expecting people to scurry back into survival mode, but they’ve got that wrong.  People want to send their children to their neighborhood schools.”

He promised a “full-court press” for an elected school board over the next year.

Raise Your Hand called on the legislature to pass a moratorium on school closings “so CPS can modify its utilization formula to incorporate special education populations along with…community-based programs.”  The district’s utilization formula “is significantly flawed” and “results in overcrowded classrooms across CPS,” said Wendy Katten.

Along with a moratorium, RYH urged legislators to order an audit of safety, factility conditions, and overcrowding in closing and receiving schools, as well as the costs of school closings.

“I don’t think anybody thinks this is the end,” said Erica Clark of Parents For Teachers.

“Parents in some of the schools are not going to take this lying down,” she said.  “For months they’ve been saying we’re not leaving our school, we’re not going to that school, it’s not safe and it’s not a better school; we’re just not going.”

After months of effort, “a lot more people are engaged,” said Xian Barrett, a high school history teacher and activist with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in CTU.  Keeping them engaged is the challenge organizers face.

The union is providing one avenue for continued activism — training hundreds of voter registrars with the goal of  registering 100,000 new voters.  Two hundred teachers and community members have registered for the first training sessions, conducted by the County Clerk’s office, Thursday, May 23 at 5:30 p.m. at Bethel AME Church, 4440 S. Michigan.

CTU president Karen Lewis will speak about the failings of mayoral control of Chicago schools and the need for an elected school board.

“It’s really a biggger fight to get community control of our city and our schools, and it won’t be over until it’s won,” Barrett said.

Common sense on school closings Tue, 21 May 2013 01:53:34 +0000 When she was first appointed, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett was fond of talking of the necessity of restoring trust that had been broken by previous administrations.  She promised a thorough community engagement process around this wave of school closings.

And there have been innumberable forums for public input since January.  The problem is, it’s been almost entirely ignored.

CPS’s basic criteria for deciding to close schools — its utilization standard and performance policy — have been roundly critiqued.  But hearing officers have noted that much public testimony has focused on concerns that CPS school action guidelines deem “discretionary” — things like safety and security, culture and climate, school leadership, facility conditions, special programming and community feedback.  The district chief “may” take these into account.

Some officers ruled that the school board should take these concerns into account, and recommended against closing; others ruled that CPS had met the legal requirements for closing a school, but strongly recommended that the board look into community concerns in its own evaluation and decision-making.

Which only makes sense.  The people in the schools know much better than the people downtown what’s going on in the schools, particularly around the key issue of utilization.

But CPS general counsel James Bebley reacted with defensive legalisms.  When hearing officer Cheryl Starks ruled against closing top-performing Calhoun North based in part on Alderman Fioretti’s observation that new housing was going up across the street, Bebley wrote: “The CEO has the discretion to consider neighborhood development plans, but failure to do so does not impede the CEO’s power to propose closure.”

Well, okay.  It’s your ballgame, and you write the rules.  But doesn’t common sense tell you that that kind of information is relevant and worth considering?  I mean, come on.

Right now someone at City Hall is deciding what small number of schools to take off the list as a sop to public outrage.  But if our school governance system worked properly, it would be the Board of Education itself applying independent, critical oversight — and common sense — to the decision-making process.

There was a lot of common sense offered in the hundreds of hours of public testimony over recent months, and a number of common themes emerged.

1.  The CPS utilization standard and performance metric are poor measures of the realities in schools. 

Public testimony has consistently noted that the district’s utilization standards fail to account for educational programming in schools. The Chicago Educational Faciities Task Force, created and appointed by the legislature, has consistently backed them up: the state facilities law requires school utilization standards to account for school programs as well as use by community organizations offering programming.  CPS’s standards do neither.

It’s particularly egregious when it comes to special education.  As a recent post spelled out, there are schools on the closing list where the number of self-contained special ed classrooms is larger than the school’s total allotment for “ancillary” rooms — art, music, science or tech labs, special ed, etc.

So school closings are having a disproportionate impact on special ed students, a number of well-regarded programs are being dispersed, and students with IEPs are likely to end up getting less attention in their new schools.

2.  Public comment has consistently rejected the CPS standard which says the “ideal” size for elementary classes is 30, and that classrooms with up to 36 kids are “effectively utilized.”

The Tribune has shown that actual class sizes vary widely but on average are much lower than the CPS standard — 57 percent of elementary schools had average class sizes of 26 or less, according to a district analysis:

“Setting the benchmark higher than what records indicate is reality across Chicago — and far higher than in many suburbs…allows the mayor and school officials to drive the debate with attention-grabbing statistics” — like the claim that half of all schools are underutilized, or that there are 100,000 “empty seats.”

In other words, the basic assumptions driving school closings are based on manipulated statistics.  (Too bad the Tribune’s editorial board doesn’t read its own paper’s news coverage.)

A recent WBEZ report contains an important admission by CPS officials: yes, school closings will result in increased class sizes in receiving schools.

For months, as Raise Your Hand and others raised the alarm about overcrowding resulting from school closings, CPS has argued that larger class sizes are linked to underutilization.  Underutilized schools get less money and can’t afford a full cohort of teachers, leading to larger homerooms and split classrooms.

The implication was that closing schools would help reduce class sizes.

But BEZ reports that the schools targeted for closing tend to have lower class sizes.  And CPS admits that in merging schools, class sizes will go up.

Right now, there are 50,000 children in CPS homerooms larger than the district limit, including 8,000 in homerooms with more than 35 kids, and some in classes with as many as 45, according to the report.

With school closings, those numbers will go up.  Raise Your Hand has identified eight receiving schools that are on probation, and where mergers will cause overcrowding.

Common sense tells you there’s no way that’s a good thing.

3.  CPS’s performance policy doesn’t make sense.

Not when statistical legerdemain results in schools with lower test scores being rated “better performing” than schools with higher test scores, as both the Tribune and the Sun Times have documented.

Lots of community people have spoken to this during hearings, and several hearing officers made note of it as well.

WBEZ now reports that in only 3 of 53 school closings are student being sent to top-performing schools, which research is shown is necessary for achievement to improve as a result of school closings.

Then you have extra-funny stuff, as at Henson and Paderewski — where higher-rated schools are designated as receiving schools, but attendance boundaries are split up to send future students to lower-performing schools.  (In Paderewski’s case, hearing officer Patrick McGann questioned the boundary realignment.)

A responsible, independent school board would tell CPS to go back to the drawing board, come up with utilization standards and performance metrics that make sense (and fulfill statutory requirements), and only then consider whether some school closings are advisable.

4.  School leadership, culture, community partnerships, and educational programs really matter and should be taken into account. 

5.  School closings cause violence.

Hopefully school board members are studying the current Sun Times series on the routes children will have to walk if their schools are closed.  It’s scary.

Even better, they should themselves walk the routes they are considering forcing neighborhood children to walk.

Much fear was expressed in community hearings — and over and over, much skepticism about CPS’s blanket reassurances that they knew how to provide for children’s security.

“We’ve seen increased violence every time they’ve closed schools,” anti-violence activist Rev. Robin Hood told Newstips last month.

And Jitu Brown of KOCO pointed out that school closings have led to the growth of street crews, a point DePaul professor Horace Hall underscored at a forum last week: often kids join gangs for protection, to avoid walking alone when they have to navigate gang boundaries on the way to and from school.

Several hearing officers rejected CPS’s draft security plans as inadequate.  In his ruling on the closing of Stewart, Charles Winkler urged delaying action a year:  “Since a definitive safety plan will not be ready until late August, CPS should consider delaying implementation of the proposal until the 2014-15 school year.”

6. There are smarter ways to fix CPS finances.

It turns out school closings aren’t going to save any money anytime soon, if ever — so the rationale that “we can’t wait” because there’s a “billion-dollar deficit” should be put to rest.  If school closings are actually going to cost money, at least for the first few years, maybe we should be focusing on bigger things.

In any case, causing massive disruption in the lives of students and communities in order to save $43 million a year in operating costs (minus $233 million in “investments,” minus $25 million a year for 30 years to finance the investments) doesn’t get you very far compared to what community members raised in hearing after hearing — the $250 million a year taken from schools by TIFs.

7.  Charters aren’t what everyone wants

Lots of people spoke out against charters.  Some view them as outsider-controlled, while they have a sense of ownership with their own schools.

Lots of neighborhood schools speak of being undermined by aggressive charter recruitment.  (If the waiting lists are so long, why do they have to spend so much money on recruitment?  And is that a good use of philanthropic resources?)  The Trib’s report suggests Calhoun is losing enrollment to a Learn charter campus across the street — one of three Learn charters in a neighborhood where five schools are proposed for closing.

An expansion of charters following the school closings will undermine the district’s credibility after all the talk of utilization and budget crises.  If the goal is to close neighborhood schools and open charters, the decent thing would be to say so.

Perhaps at least the concept of “school choice” could be expanded to include families that want their neighborhood schools.

8. Why not try real engagement?

Common sense would tell you that many of the qualities known to be crucial in improving schools — effective leadership, a culture of trust and collaboration — are necessary in any well-functioning organization.  But they are missing at CPS.

We have a leadership that manipulates data, pursues hidden agendas, and makes promises it can’t keep; we have a cuture of fear, distrust and disrespect.  The main problem comes from the top.

From the start, Mayor Emanuel has chosen confrontation as his only tactic in addressing schools.  From what I’m told, the mayor has little real interest or understanding of education policy; he basically just listens to Bruce Rauner, the far-right ideologue who thinks the problem with schools is unions and the answer is charters, and a few others.

I’m no psychologist, but Emanuel seems to feel like he’s not accomplishing anything unless he’s fighting with someone.

Byrd-Bennett and the Tribune get upset when people call school closings racist — and they might be advised not to dismiss out of hand this very widespread sentiment — but no one could deny that time and again, Emanuel has chosen the most divisive approach possible.

He approached the longer school day as a “win-lose” proposition when that was unnecessary; he precipitated the first teachers strike in decades through incompetence; and he’s chosen to address the supposed billion-dollar deficit with a non-solution that nonetheless has riled up many communities, turned off huge numbers of parents who feel shut out, and turned large segments of the city’s population against him.

If there’s any lesson from all the community hearings, it’s that there’s a huge reservoir of concern and commitment to schools in neighborhoods across the city, a huge supply of dedicated and passionate parents and teachers, and an awful lot of students who love their schools.  That’s something that effective leadership would cheer and build on.

Unfortunately, the approach of Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett has been to push these people aside.

To fix schools in Chicago, we’re going to need leadership that brings people together to solve problems — the way radical community groups and conservative business groups cooperated to win local control in the late 1980s.  We’re going to have to honor the work that educators do, involve parents and community groups, and heed the wisdom of the community.

In the meantime, we could use a school board with the capacity to think for itself.

]]> 2
Planning lags for homeless students Sun, 19 May 2013 21:56:49 +0000 Homeless students are more than twice as likely than others to be impacted by Mayor Emanuel’s school closings, according to an analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

And if plans for transitioning homeless students are any indication, CPS preparations for school closings are far behind where they’ve been at this point in previous years — and far behind where they need to be.

The 3,900 homeless students who would be impacted if the school board approves all proposed mergers, turnarounds and co-locations represent 8.5 percent of impacted students — more than twice the share of homeless students citywide, which CPS reports as 4 percent, according to CCH.

The 1,400 homeless  students displaced from closing schools represents an even higher proportion — 8.7 percent of students subject to displacement.

CCH’s Law Project has assisted homeless students impacted by school closures since 2004, and “CPS has never demonstrated its ability to successfully serve students transitioning to new schools,” said Patricia Nix-Hodes, the coalition’s associate legal director. “We have seen students lost in the process as well as students at risk of increased violence.

“Even on a much smaller scale, receiving schools have not been adequately prepared,” Nix-Hodes said.  “Students have arrived to new schools without enough desks, books or staff. School records have failed to arrive in a timely manner. Adequate transportation has not been provided to get students to the new school.

“It is inconceivable that CPS will be able to provide all impacted with better school choices and meaningful transition and transportation services, especially with the final announcements taking place so late in the school year.”

Learning from the past?

But although current CPS leaders claim they’ve learned from the failures of past school closings, preparations this year are far behind previous years, said Laurene Heybach, director of the coalition’s law project.

The CCH Law Project represents homeless students under a 2000 court order establishing CPS’s responsiblity to provide them with access to schools.  In 2004 CCH went to court to force CPS to apply the protections in school closings.

Since then CPS has provided CCH with a list of homeless students that would be affected by closings at the time school actions were proposed, generally by January (and by December under the new state facilities law, a deadline Emanuel leaned on the General Assembly to extend this year).

The coalition would do outreach with families, apprise them of their rights to transitional services and transportation, and provide counseling to help them choose the right school for their children, which could be different than the designated receiving school for homeless families.

“It’s a massive amount of information if parents are going to be given a choice,” Heybach said.  “It’s important to have someone help them sort through their options.”

No information

This year CCH has yet to get such a list, Heybach said.  “This year we’re being told we won’t get a list until after the school board votes,” she said.  “We feel like they’re cutting off a community resource.”

They’re also telescoping a process in which families had several months to discuss options and visit schools into a single week.  Families with students in schools approved for closure by the board next Wednesday will have from May 23 to May 31 to select a receiving school.  (Schools will be closed on May 27 for Memorial Day.)

And last week CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent a letter to principals saying any school “that has space” will have to accept any student from a closing school who requests admission next week, Raise Your Hand reports.


“There’s still no list of which schools have room,” said Heybach.  “It’s utter chaos.  Everything’s in flux.  They’re making it up as they go.”

Also long before this point in previous years, CPS had provided parents of homeless children with a detailed letter of summer programs to help them transition to new schools.  “All the parent wanted something for the summer,” said Heybach.

This year that information is not available.

“If the [new] school is better, shouldn’t they have some academic support to prepare for it, shouldn’t they have some social support to prepare for the transition?” asked Heybach.  “Why isn’t anyone addressing academic and social supports?

“For any person who cares about improving educational outcomes, this makes no sense,” she said.  “It’s just not what any educational professional, any teacher or social worker, would ever support as a way to organize the most massive school closing in U.S. history.”

Not recommended

That may be why the Broad Foundation recommends an 18-month process for closing schools, with six months of community engagement preceding the announcement of a list of school closures.

Under their recommended schedule, an initial list of closings would have been released in October and finalized in December.  Then transition planning would begin.

Student reassignment, including multiple meetings were families can learn about the reassignment process, would take place over four months, from December to March.  Four months would be allowed for schools to revise their enrollment projections and budgets.

It may also be why Byrd-Bennett’s commission on school closings recommended taking two years for the closings.

As an anonymous commission member told the Sun Times in March, “They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that [closing 50 schools] in such a short timeframe.  When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster.”

AUSL turnarounds called ineffective, expensive Fri, 17 May 2013 01:19:45 +0000 Why is deficit-challenged CPS proposing to spend over $1 million a year to “turn around” each of six schools, using a program that’s produced mediocre results — especially when teachers at four of the schools have voted to support a far cheaper and more effective turnaround proposal?

Could the political connections of the Academy for Urban School Leadership — whose big-dollar donors include major contributors to Mayor Emanuel, like David Vitale, Penny Pritzker and Bruce Rauner — have something to do with it?


Of twelve turnaround schools listed on AUSL’s website which the group took over between 2006 and 2010, ten of them are on academic probation today.    Only one of them is rated as Level 1 — “high performing” — by CPS.

Of those twelve schools, eleven were below the CPS district-wide average for ISAT composite scores.  AUSL’s top-scoring school had a composite score that was equal to the CPS average, which is lower than half its schools.

Three AUSL turnarounds at CPS high schools are abject failures, with scores far below district averages and negligible growth.

AUSL did not respond to a request for an interview.

A study last year by Don Moore of Designs For Change of Chicago elementary schools with poverty rates above 95 percent — there were 210 of them — found 33 scoring above the CPS average on ISAT reading scores (the most rigorous test and the most fundamental skill, experts say).  None were AUSL schools.

All the successful schools followed what Designs called the “school-based democracy” model, with Local School Councils selecting principals, approving the budget, and monitoring school improvement — a stark contrast to the “top-down” strategy represented by AUSL.

Only three  out of ten AUSL schools were among the top half of high-poverty schools in reading achievement, Designs found.  That’s despite over $1 million a year in additional resources given to AUSL turnaround schools.

The additional money includes management fees and annual per-pupil payments, in addition to large capital investments in turnaround schools.  The CPS supplementary capital budget for this year includes $11 million dollars for improvements to six schools slated for AUSL takeovers.  Among other resources, AUSL schools get a second assistant principal and a full-time social worker.

A couple years ago, annual spending on turnarounds was $20 million.  It’s growing steadily.

“The resources now used for turnaround schools need to be shifted to helping effective schools become resources for other schools,” Designs concluded.


Moore’s study was released shortly after a report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which found that turnarounds and other aggressive school interventions in low-performing schools had “closed the gap in [reading] test scores with the system average by almost half.”

This was touted by editorial writers and politicians as proof of AUSL’s success.  But was it?

Citing statisticians, Catalyst said the report “showed only a small amount of progress,” particularly given “the upheavel and financial investment in turnarounds.”

Pressed by the Sun Times to clarify the report’s results — which were given only in terms of standard deviations — one author explained that after four years of intervention, sixth graders in a turnaround school are 3.5 months ahead of their peers in the lowest-performing schools.

That’s what the Tribune calls “dramatic academic progress,” and what Mayor Emanuel calls “academic excellence.”

The school board went on to approve six AUSL turnarounds.


There’s another model for turnarounds in Chicago — one which has often outperformed AUSL, without replacing teachers and principals, and at one-fifth the cost.

Strategic Learning Initiatives developed its “focused instruction process” approach in a demonstration project with CPS that started in 2006, the same year as AUSL’s first turnaround.

In the four-year program, involving eight low-income elementary schools in Little Village and Garfield Park — each of which had been on probation for ten years or more — each of the schools dramatically increased their annual achievement growth rates, most within one or two years.

The program is based on decades of management studies of high-performance organizations and on the “five essential supports” identified by Moore and validated by the Consortium — effective leadership, family-community partnerships, supportive learning environment, ambitious instruction, and a culture of trust and collaboration.

(The Consortium has found that schools measured strong in all five supports were ten times more likely to achieve substantial gains in reading and math; remarkably, in CPS reports on the five supports, only three AUSL turnaround schools are rated “organized for improvement” or “highly organized.”  Its oldest turnarounds are rated “not yet organized.”)

Working with SLI, principals and teachers get in-school coaches, and teachers run their own problem-solving sessions in school and across school networks.  A family engagement component focuses on teaching parents how to support their children’s learning.  The whole process aims at developing a sense of ownership among school community members, says SLI president John Simmons.

According to Simmons, the biggest lesson from the group’s collaboration with CPS was that, far from being the root of the problem, existing staff and parents “form a large and untapped reservoir of energy, ideas and commitment” for school improvement.

“The idea of replacing the entire staff is completely foreign to the corporate turnaround model,” he points out.

SLI won’t come into a school unless 80 percent of its teachers vote for the program in a secret ballot.  (Because it doesn’t replace the staff, the program is eligible for federal funding as a “school transformation” rather than a “turnaround.”) Teachers at four of the six schools slated for AUSL turnarounds have voted to request that CPS let them apply for an SLI-led transformation.


CTU activist Debby Pope, who attended hearings for five of the school proposed turnarounds, says she noticed a pattern:  most of the schools being targeted had new principals who seemed to be inspiring the staff, and who were achieving significant increases on test scores.

An analysis shows that annual reading score gains at the six proposed turnarounds are eight times higher in the past two years than they were over the previous four.

The change is particularly striking at four of the schools:  under new principals, Barton went from an average yearly decrease of -0.1 percent for four years, to an average yearly gain of 4.7 percent in the past two years; Chalmers went from 0.4 to 4.5; Dewey from -1.9 to 3.2, and Carter from 0.4 to 2.3.

Could it be that, in an effort to goose its own success rate, AUSL is looking for schools where a turnaround in student achievement is already under way?

At the hearing for Chalmers, Pope said, “As a union representative I have to say, it’s not every day you have a staff extolling the leadership of a principal the way you do here.”

Parents and teachers praised principal Kent Nolan, a focused, intent young black man who cuts an impressive figure.

One mother expressed her amazement on coming home and finding her 13-year-old son reading a book.  “My six-year-old daughter reads books,” she said.  “This school has been excellent.”

Another described the turnaround in her two sons’ attitudes toward school.   A third told of being impressed when she saw Nolan disperse a group of drug dealers from a corner near the school.  “What other principal would do that?” she said.

Another parent pointed out that, with an LSC, “we have a say in naming a principal.”  Under AUSL they wouldn’t.

In thirteen years in five CPS schools, “I have never seen an administration as supportive and dedicated,” said a math teacher.  “The school was in trouble” before the new principal, said a case manager.  “We have a fresh start.”

Under Nolan, in two years, Chalmers’ ISATs have risen 10 points.  They’re still far below the district’s average, and the school is still on probation, but it’s only a few points from moving to the next level, according to testimony.

And in the CPS report card on the “five supports,” Chalmers is rate “highly organized for improvement.” It really does seem to have turned around already.

“I have experience with AUSL,” said one mother.  She said her daughter, a student at Collins Academy, was being told she had to find a new school “because of her behavior.”  (I asked her later what the behavior issues were.  “Girl stuff,” she said.)  “Are you going to kick out all the kids with behavior problems?”

She added later that she had a nephew at one of AUSL’s elementary schools who was being told to go to another school.

“We have homeless children, children with parents who are unemployed or incarcerated, parents with addictions; we have children who have been rejected from turnaround schools,” said third grade teacher Louis Lane during the hearing.  “As educators we rise to the occasion daily, we respect our students and care for them.  We are teachers who teach, not kick students out because they have problems.”


It seems immensely, tragically disrespectful to educators like Nolan and Lane and their colleagues to wantonly replace them in order to deliver a payoff to political cronies.

The only real purpose for firing and replacing staff in turnarounds appears to be “to discriminate against experienced educators, especially educators of color,” said CTU president Karen Lewis in a statement last month.  Younger teachers cost less.

CTU found that in six turnarounds of elementary schools with majority-black teaching staffs last year, including three by AUSL and three by CPS, the proportion of blacks on the staff dropped dramatically.  In AUSL’s turnaround of Stagg, the percentage of teachers who were African American dropped from 80 to 35 percent when AUSL took over.

More dramatic was the increase in inexperienced teachers.  While none of the schools had first-year teachers before the turnarounds, after the turnarounds a whopping 57 percent of their teaching staff were first-years.

On top of that, the Designs study revealed that AUSL has huge levels of teacher turnover.  Only 42 percent of teachers at turnaround schools in 2008-09 were still there three years later.

With Chicago taxpayers footing the bill for AUSL’s vaunted teacher training program, that’s s a concern.  In addition, “it creates a constant need to identify new teachers, and makes the goal of fundamentally changing a school’s culture more difficult,” according to Designs.

“High teacher turnover is damaging to a school’s ability to build collaboration among teachers, relationships with students and parents, and continuity in the school’s curriculum.”

Maybe that’s one reason AUSL schools are having trouble getting organized for improvement.


It looks like AUSL will emerge as the big winner in North Lawndale if proposed school actions are approved, said Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.

She says four of five school actions will benefit AUSL, which will end up controlling all the schools in Douglas Park, where its under-performing high school, Collins Academy, is located.

Pope Elementary is proposed for closing, with its students sent to Johnson, an AUSL school. Bethune, which was turned around in 2009, is slated for closing, allowing AUSL to jettison one of its more challenging schools, where results have not been impressive.  Leonard expects Bethune students will be encouraged to go not to the designated receiving school but to Johnson or to Chalmers, if it’s also taken over by AUSL.

And in a curious maneuver, current Henson students would be sent to Hughes, a Level 2 school, but Henson’s attendance boundaries would be redrawn with half its area assigned to Herzl, a recent AUSL turnaround that’s still Level 3 and on probation.

Leonard point out that even after being in place for several years, AUSL schools in North Lawndale still underperform Lawndale schools generally.  On ISAT reading scores, North Lawndale schools average 65.6 percent meeting and exceeding standards, while AUSL schools in the neighborhood average 51.7.

“The school action policy is being driven for the benefit of well-connected people,” she said.

One of AUSL’s strategies seems to be taking over elementary schools feeding the high schools where it’s under-performing, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, which works with parents and students at Orr Academy and local elementary schools.

“They seem to be thinking, if we can push out and counsel out students from the elementary schools, we can end up with fewer special ed and bilingual students and children with discipline issues at the high school,” she said. “They can get the cream of the crop.”

BT has dealt repeatedly with large numbers of Orr students who were told not to return to school after the turnaround there.  Carroll thinks that with BT’s persistent pushback, the school has backed off its strategy of dumping.

(Rod Estvan of Access Living has reported that the proportion of students with disabilities has dropped at AUSL schools; at Morton Academy, AUSL’s top-scoring school, it’s dropped by one-third since the turnaround.  He’s also noted that enrollment declined by 15 percent from 2006 to 2012 at ten AUSL schools, during a period when CPS enrollment declined by 4 percent.)

According to Carroll, school actions in BT’s area also seem to favor AUSL in curious ways.  School closings are passing by Piccolo, which AUSL took over last year, though it’s a Level 3 school with a 40 percent utilization rate (Carroll says it’s lower now) — and with $26 million in capital needs, according to CPS.

Instead two Level 2 schools with much higher utilization rates and lower capital needs assessments — Ryerson and Laura Ward — are being combined.

And while 53 schools are closed, two AUSL schools, Morton and Dodge, are co-locating.  That means that each school gets to keep its administrative staff — including a second assistant principal for each school, though with enrollments of 362 and 423 respectively, Morton and Dodge are no bigger than many schools that are being combined.

“This isn’t about money,” said Carroll.  “Clearly these decision are not dictated by what’s fiscally prudent.”

It doesn’t seem to be about education either.  It seems to be about money and power.

]]> 5
In Bronzeville: school closings, violence, Wal-Mart, and TIFs Wed, 15 May 2013 00:58:22 +0000 Two actions protested the closing of Overton Elementary in Bronzeville today — a morning rally highlighting safety issues (and much more), and an afternoon action, which raised larger issues of resources by drawing the connection to a Walmart being built nearby with TIF funds.

About a hundred parents marched from Overton, at 49th and Indiana, to Mollison, at 44th and King  — past four gangs and four drug locations, according to Francis Newman, a parent from Williams Prep, which is also on the school closing list.

The walk also took them past the spot where Columbia College student Kevin Ambrose was shot and killed last week, she noted.

“We’re demanding these schools be kept open and that they get the resources they need,” Newman said.  She said she recently visited Disney Magnet school, which has numerous computers, smart boards, and iPads for children.  “In our school, we can’t get a computer that works,” she said.

The real status-quo

The idea that “schools are under-resourced because they’re underutilized is a lie that is used to validate the status quo,” said Jeanette Taylor, an LSC member at Mollison and a leader with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.  “The status quo in Chicago is closing schools.”

Several parents discussed schools that had struggled after repeatedly receiving students from closing schools and are still being subject to school actions.

A hearing officer has recommended keeping Overton open, challenging CPS’s assertion that Mollison is a higher-performing school, which is based on its highly technical system of performance points.

“Closing this school to bring children from Overton to Mollison doesn’t sound like education reform it me, is sounds like sabotage,” Taylor said.

Overton parent Darlene Johnson said she served as a Safe Passage worker at Dyett High School last year.  “A boy walked past us, turned the corner, and was shot,” she said.

She also raised the issue of budget priorities:  “We say no money to McCormick Place for a DePaul arena, no TIF money for Wal-Mart — and why does that rich lady that used to be on the school board need all that TIF money?”  She was referring to Penny Pritzker.

Wal-Mart connections

That was also the theme of an afternoon rally that started at the school and ended at the site of a new Wal-Mart at 47th and King Drive, featuring Wal-Mart workers from OUR Wal-Mart and Warehouse Workers for Justice, along with the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Jobs With Justice.

The Walmart development on 47th is being subsidized with $13 million in TIF money, on top of an $11 million TIF subsidy for a new Walmart in Pullman, organizers said.  On top of that, the Walton family foundation gave close to a half-million dollars to finance CPS’s school closing “community engagement”  (including advertising).

Walmart’s owners have also given $22 million to charters in Chicago — their largest investment in charters in the nation — organizers said.

The world’s largest employer — and the nation’s wealthiest family — “can afford to build their own store without our tax dollars,” said Susan Hurley of JWJ.  “That money should be going to our schools.  We could save a lot of schools with $24 million.

“And they need to do a lot better by their workers before they start telling us how to run our schools.”

“Why does Walmart and the Walton Family, who don’t live in Chicago, have more say about our schools than the people who send their children there?” asked Kristine Mayle of CTU.  “It’s because they have the same agenda as the mayor, which is … to privatize them.”

Closing schools, cutting resources Mon, 13 May 2013 23:11:43 +0000 The rhetoric around school closings is now about focusing resources.

That communication strategy is dictated by the fact that school closings turn out not to be about deficits or utilization — since they won’t save money for several years, if ever, and since the “utilization crisis,” caused by adding 50,000 charter seats during a decade when CPS lost 30,000 students, is being addressed by adding more charters.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett now says closing schools will allow CPS to provide libraries, air conditioning, iPads and “learning gardens” at a small group of receiving schools.

It’s odd, then, that Byrd-Bennet recommends closing a school like Manierre, where Target provided a $200,000 grant to upgrade their library just two years ago. The funding covered 2,000 new books, a computer lab with iPads, and a family reading corner.

Independent hearing officer Paddy McNamara has recommended against closing Manierre, but CPS general counsel James Bebley filed a response arguing that in doing so, she “exceeded the scope of her authority” by considering information beond what CPS submitted.


In her report, McNamara called “baffling” the failure of CPS to note Manierre’s participation in “five distinct multimillion-dollar initiatives that are in mid-implementation” — all started within the past two years.

Manierre Elementary's new library - slated for closing

Manierre Elementary’s new library – slated for closing

These include the Target library makeover and Children’s Literacy Initiative. Manierre’s Ferguson Center is also part of a federally-funded revitalization of parent-child centers — a renewed priority in Chicago — with funding going to expand to full-day preschool and develop curriculum alignment from preschool through 3rd grade — an emerging priority in the field of early education.

That’s one of two intensive professional development programs under way at the school. Manierre is also one of eight schools where teachers are working with the Erikson Institute’s ground-breaking early childhood math instruction project.

Closing Manierre would end all these programs, which would mean big investments of money, time and effort down the drain.

With all the talk about “resources,” it’s worth looking at the resources that will be eliminated if the school board votes to close 53 schools.

In a school district that where a third of neighborhood elementary schools have to choose between a part-time art or music teacher — and where nearly a tenth of neighborhood schools have neither — many of the schools CPS is proposing to close have arts programming by outside groups that will be lost.

Arts programs threatened

Lafayette ‘s impressive string music orchestra, run by Merit Music and integrating students from the school’s special education programs, has received widespread attention. Its future at this point is unknown, but it doesn’t look good.

As the Sun Times points out, the program takes six rooms at Lafayette for practice and storage (with 85 kids, practicing 4 days a week, it’s one of the largest such programs in the city). CPS wants to jam 720 students into Chopin, the designated receiving school, leaving it full to the brim — in a school with only 33 rooms.

Songhai Elementary's band program

Songhai Elementary’s band program

Other programs are at risk of being shut down. Muziknet‘s Music Scholars Program, which offers free guitar and keyboard instruction at Louis Armstrong Elementary and recently added band instruments, could be shut down if Armstrong is closed. At Sonhai Elementary, also on the closing list, a Salvation Army program provides band instruments and instruction, and sends kids to summer music camp in Wisconsin.

Closing Delano Elementary would erase a range of arts programming, including dance and drama clubs. Family Focus provides arts activities along with family support services. Delano’s spoken word team was one of the youngest groups to compete in this year’s Louder Than A Bomb festival. They won a top award for performing their poem addressing the CPS plan to close the school. (Check it out.)

(Delano is one of the schools where the hearing officer recommended against closing, pointing out that unlike Delano, receiving school Melody is on probation, and that Delano has higher ISAT scores. CPS argues that under its arcane performance policy point system, Melody came out ahead; the hearing officer favored a common-sense definition of “higher performing.”)

Save the Music

At King Elementary, CPS would shut down a piano and music lab built with a $30,000 grant from VH-1’s Save The Music Foundation, as well as the school’s drama program.

Closing May Elementary will eliminate an amazing array of arts partnerships: Old Town School provides instruction in African drumming and guitar, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic assists with jazz band and drumline, Joffre Ballet works with the dance club, and there’s much more.

By closing Garvey, CPS would eliminate a video production program supported by Panasonic (check out Garvey Kidvids) that complements the school’s emphasis on technology. Over the years the Garvey students have won 18 first-place awards in national video competitions.

When it comes to technology, downtown administrators don’t always have a handle on what’s going on in the schools, it seems. Among the reasons given by CPS for closing Ericson and Henson are that each building “lacks a computer lab” — according to CPS, Ericson has no science lab either.

But according to Raise Your Hand, Ericson has two science labs and three computer labs. “It’s a beautiful building,” said Wendy Katten, wondering what group CPS wants to give it to. And according to the Lawndale Alliance, Henson has a computer lab in addition to computers in the library and a computer in every classroom — indeed, it’s much better equipped than the receiving school CPS has designated.

Closing clinics

Also at Henson, a school-community health clinic run by Erie Family Health Center will be closed. CPS seems to have dropped language promising to look for a new location for the clinic from its public notice on the closing.

That’s too bad, since CPS only has 200 nurses for 680 schools.

CPS is promising to keep open the health clinic at Ryerson Elementary, which takes up two of Ryerson’s 31 classrooms. (As the General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force has repeatedly argued, CPS doesn’t follow the new school facilities law, which requires it to account for “use of school buildings by governmental agencies and community organizations” in its utilization standard.)

That’s going to make things tight, since the combined student body when Ward takes over the building could be 780, in a building with an official capacity of 690. Ryerson has three special ed classes capped at 15 students, and Ward has a high special ed population. And now they’re getting a new engineering lab to go with their new STEM program.

Let’s hope they don’t have to close the fitness center donated to Ryerson by the Chicago Bulls two years ago. But in any case, they are going to have some very large classes.

Social services ousted

Meanwhile, in a city wracked with violence — in a district which has 320 social workers for 680 schools, and where school counselors’ caseloads are five times as high as professional standards recommend, according to CTU — CPS closings threaten social services which help kids survive and thrive in dangerous neighborhoods.

At May Elementary, the YMCA provides after-school, weekend, and summer programs, making use of six classrooms in the building. They also offer family support services and job readiness and career development classes for parents. According to the Y, they’ve heard nothing from CPS about continuing or relocating the program if May closes.

Westside Health Authority and Fathers Who Care also provide programs that will be threatened by May’s closing.

At Pope Elementary in North Lawndale, also on the closing list, America Scores provides an after-school program combining soccer and reading, and the Juvenile Protection Association provides a counseling program.

At Yale Elementary, closing the school will shut out Children’s Home and Aid, which provides academic support, sports and arts programming, mental health services and parent involvement.

At West Pullman Elementary, which CPS wants to close, a comprehensive Boys and Girls Club program opened in January with a five-year state grant, offering after-school arts and recreation activities along with homework help and health, life skills and character development programs.

These are just a few examples. Across the city, in neighborhood schools that aren’t provided enough art teachers, nurses, or social workers, principals have worked with nonprofits to fill gaps. It appears that in their rush to close schools on a very accelerated timeline, CPS has dropped the ball on sustaining these relationships.


In the rush to close schools, CPS is even seeking to close two schools that have elevators and air conditioning — in order to send their special-needs students to schools without elevators, where air conditioning will have to be installed.

At Morgan, according to Every School Is My School, 20 percent of the students have special needs, and 70 percent of those kids use wheelchairs or crutches.

Here’s what the CPS draft transition play for their transition to Ryder elementary says about that: “CPS will work with Ryder to ensure that classrooms are set up to meet students needs.”

It also says this: “Ryder is not accessible to persons with disabilities according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information, contact the CPS Director of ADA Policy at 773-553-2158.” And that’s all it says about that.

Hearing officer David H. Coar notes that Rod Estvan of Access Living testified that he’d been assured that the first floor (though not the second) of Ryder would be made accessible; Coar also notes that there’s nothing in the capital investment budget submitted by CPS that reflects that commitment.

Mahalia Jackson not only has an elevator and is ADA compliant, it has expensive equipment and accommodations to serve a cluster program for hearing-impaired students. They’re being sent to Miles Davis, which will require major investments to install appropriate accommodations.

Coar was the hearing officer for both schools, and he recommended against closing either of them, citing insufficiencies in the draft transition plans regarding safety and security as well as lack of assurances that receiving schools can accommodate student with special needs.

Rubber stamp, please

General counsel Bebley charges Coar with, again, having “exceeded the scope of his authority,” saying his job is to “summarize the hearings” and decide whether CPS complied with the law by submitting the proper notice and documents.

Coar did more than summarize the hearings, he listened to the concerns of parents and teachers and took them seriously.

He listens when people say the district’s utilization standard isn’t fair to schools with larger special needs populations. And it doesn’t seem to be: the CPS formula assigns Morgan eight ancillary rooms, to cover special ed, art or music, science and computer labs, and parent and teacher resource rooms.

But Morgan uses six rooms for special ed. It’s got two rooms — with enrollment limited by law — for mild cognitive disability, two for autism, and two inclusion resource rooms. Doesn’t leave much for art and science.

Jackson has 8.5 “ancillary rooms” according to the CPS formula, and uses nine for cluster programs for kids with autism (class size limit: 6 to 8) and hearing impairment (limit 13).

Coar says both schools meet the official criteria for underutilization under CPS standards, but adds, “My reading of the utilization standards leave me concerned the the formula used is not appropriate for a school in which 20 percent of the students have special needs.”

He also listens on safety concerns — when Jackson parents express dismay at CPS sending their children across unfenced railroad tracks, where they’ll be tempted to take “short cuts”; when they talk about receiving school Fort Dearborn being located in rival gang territory, where gang violence has included a fatal beating with a baseball bat.

Walk the walk

He listens when a Morgan mother talks about taking the walk her second-grade daughter will be forced to take to Ryder — across gang lines — and being assailed by taunts and threats of harm to Morgan children if they come to Ryder. (That was one of the walks Mayor Emanuel was invited to join; he was otherwise occupied.)

All closing schools’ draft transition plans include identical language on safety and security, which Coar judges to be “deficient in failing to provide the information necessary to allow parents, students, and the [Board of Education] to evaluate safety issues specific to [each school].”

He also urges CPS to pay attention to the discretionary factors to be considered, including safety and security, culture and climate, school leadership, facility conditions, specal programming and community feedback. (In other responses, Bebley hangs his lawyer’s hat on the language in CPS guidelines that such factors “may” be considered, arguing that they such consideration isn’t actually required, and hearing officers shouldn’t address those factors.)

Coar notes that much of the testimony by parents and teachers addresses these “discretionary” issues, while none of CPS’s submissions do with any specificity, and CPS officials testifying never mentioned them. Coar strongly urges the board to take them into account.

He’s most impressed by the inclusive culture at Jackson, where the new principal is hearing-impaired and many non-disabled students and teachers know sign language. The “signature moment” for him was when a deaf student testified and the entire room responded by signing applause.

“Nothing emerged at the hearing that indicated that [Byrd-Bennett] has exercised her discretion to consider school culture and climate,” Coar writes. “Had she done so, I must believe that, given the uniqueness of the culture there, the problem of underutilization at Jackson would have been addressed in a way not requiring the closing of the school.”

(One way to eliminate overcapacity might be to close and demolish one of two annexes at the receiving school, which is also rated underutilized. As it stands, Jackson parents fear their special needs kids will be segregated in one of the annexes.)

Squeezing special ed

Because CPS’s utilization standard discriminates against schools with higher proportions of children with disabilities, a disproportionate number of schools with special ed programs are on the closing list. And it’s not clear how student’s IEPs can be met without sufficient space.

Take Otis, which CPS grants nine rooms for art, science, special ed, and other “ancillary” purposes. Seven of them are used for special ed classes with legal limits up to 15 in a room, according to RYH. Now Otis is receiving 255 students from Peabody, including nearly 50 additional students with IEPs.

At Stockton, two schools with high special needs populations are being combined. Courtenay, with three self-contained special ed rooms, is taking over the building at Stockton, which has nine self-contained classrooms. CPS’s utilization formula gives the school ten rooms for special ed and other “ancillary” purposes.

That will jeopardize a new Snoezelen room, a controlled multisensory environment used in therapy for children with autism, which was installed after Stockton speech therapist Marilyn Sandler raised $65,000 in grants on her own initiative, according to Every School.

Class size

Another program at risk is the use of Title 1 funds for high-poverty schools to reduce class sizes; principals can decided to use the money to fund additional positions. That won’t be possible at a number of high-poverty, low-performing schools once CPS closings go through, according to RYH.

The group lists thirteen school closing proposals in which the receiving school is on academic probation and asks how adding hundreds of students — in most cases pushing the student body over the receiving school’s official ideal capacity — will help those schools.

Overcrowding resulting from school closings is also likely to undermine better-performing receiving schools, according to RYH. Schools like Chopin, a top-performing school which the Sun-Times warns “may be yet another casualty” of the rush to close schools.

“Packing Chopin with as many as 400 extra students from neighborhing Lafayette jeopardizes much of what has made it thrive: small class sizes, an intimate environment, room to spread out.” Consolidation means “Chopin will likely have to discontinue some of what it offers now, boost class sizes, or both.”

Or Nicholson, which has moved from Level 3 to Level 1 over the past four years, with the school’s small class sizes credited for playing a major role. Or Leland, a small school with small classes that will now absorb two other schools and expand frm K-3 to K-8.

Under CPS’s plan, a small number of schools will get libraries, air conditioning and learning gardens, a handful will get STEM and IB programs, and some with half-time art teachers may get a full-time position. But many crucial resources flowing from the initiative of neighborhood school communities will be jettisoned, and many students who could use more individual attention will end up with less access to it.


For more: Every School Is My School

Raise Your Hand: 40 Terrible Decisions on School Actions

]]> 2
Reality check: closing schools, saving money? Tue, 16 Apr 2013 18:34:48 +0000 For month after month, Chicagoans have been told that CPS has to close schools because it has a $1 billion deficit.

How will people react after the massive disruption of wholesale school closings, when the district’s financial problems remain unchanged?

And that’s before Mayor Emanuel starts handing out new contracts to charter schools.

CPS says they’ll save something like a billion dollars over the next decade by closing 54 schools.  There’s reason to be skeptical.

According to the district, they’ll be saving $43 million a year in operating costs and an average of $56 million yearly in capital costs by closing the schools.  The operating savings come from laying off administrators and staff, according to the Sun-Times, which called it a conservative estimate, since it doesn’t include teachers who will lose their jobs.

Debt service

But that was before Catalyst and WBEZ revealed that the savings from school closings calculated by CPS did not take into account debt service for a new bond issue covering spending related to school closings.

CPS is planning to spend $233 million in upfront operating and capital costs for receiving schools, including building upgrades, air conditioning, security, iPads and learning gardens — “investments” to make closings more palatable, and a token gesture toward longstanding complaints that neighborhood schools are under-resourced.

About two-thirds of a new $329 million bond revenue will go to cover those costs, according to Catalyst; debt service will be $25 million a year for 30 years.

The $43 million in operating savings will more than cover debt service costs, CPS tells Catalyst.  But it doesn’t leave very much in the way of savings.

It’s worth noting the recent study that found that districts across the country consistently overestimated savings and underestimated the costs of closings.  CPS’s budget forecasting record does not make it a likely candidate to be an exception.  (Neither does Mayor Emanuel’s.)

Where CPS is clearly — perhaps intentionally — overestimating savings is in its claim of $560 million in avoided capital costs over the next ten years.

Capital savings?

A funny thing happened on the way to CPS’s 2012 capital needs assessments:  the district added a huge wish list for each school.

Previous assessments dealt with basic structural needs.  The new assessments include air conditioning, new or upgraded science and computer labs and art rooms for each school — without regard to actual space availability in individual schools — playground construction or repairs where needed, and building accessibility.

(This doesn’t mean CPS has altered its policy and is making AC and libraries standard features at neighborhood schools, however.  The only place AC or libraries are being added are in receiving schools that currently lack them.)

The capital needs assessments shot up — and so did the projected savings from closing schools.  People noticed.

Blocks Together noted that for ten West Humboldt Park elementary schools — five of which are now slated for closing — capital needs assessments doubled and in some cases more than tripled.  What that means is that CPS can claim more “savings” from school closings.

The East Village Association noted that the capital needs assessment for Otis Elementary went up from $5.7 million in 2010 to $11.9 million in 2012; for Peabody, which CPS wants to close into Otis, they went up from $3.3 million in 2010 to $11.5 million in 2012.

Even Emanuel’s City Council leader, Alderman Patrick O’Connor (40th), noticed.  As DNAinfo reports, O’Connor “said the $16.3 million CPS said is needed to update and maintain [Trumbull Elementary] is ‘significantly higher than you would actually spend if in fact you were going to keep that school open.'”

“‘Clearly if you wanted to make it top-of-the-line, $16 million would be a nice investment,” O’Connor said. “But if you just wish to maintain the building to keep it open, you’re more in the area of [$4 million to $5 million].”

So a half-billion in savings from capital spending — in a district that has traditionally spent little on neighborhood school buildings and lavished spending on selective enrollment and charter schools?  Don’t believe the hype.

Real money

In any case, if you want to talk about the school district’s financial distress, school closings won’t have much impact.

The $43 million in operating savings CPS claims amounts to 1 percent of the district’s operating budget — and that’s before subtracting debt service costs.  The whole framing of the issue in terms of the scary big deficit seems to have been pure misdirection.

Much more significant factors include debt service — rising by $100 million this year to $475 million in annual costs — and a loss of about $100 million in state aid since 2011, expected to drop to $140 million.

And pension costs. With a previous deferral of pension obligations coming due, CPS’s annual pension payments, which are $200 million this year, are set to shoot up to $600 million next year.

Now we’re talking real money.

How this will be addressed is anyone’s guess at this point.  Springfield could work out another postponement of CPS’s pension obligations.  Or there are various state and local revenue sources that could be tapped, if the political will is there, according to Kurt Hilgendorf of CTU.

Current negotiations over pension “reform” in Springfield have focused on plans that include cutting benefits, an approach that will certainly bring a drawn-out court challenge, since the state’s constitution explicitly prohibits cutting benefits.

A responsible approach would involve negotiating with unions — whose members certainly want to see their pension funds remain solvent (indeed, unions seem willing to consider higher employee contributions) — and coming up with new revenue.

All of these problems — the deficits, the pension crises, everything — flow from the state’s disfunctional revenue system, an upside-down, regressive tax structure which fails to capture revenue at the top, where it’s growing, and instead aims squarely at the middle and bottom, where people are steadily losing ground.

For some reason, all the billionaire reformers and all their politician friends prefer ordering cuts to fixing the state’s revenue system.  Some argue, not without plausibility, that they welcome fiscal crisis as an excuse to push privatization.

So when Mayor Emanuel asks what alternatives his opponents have, or Barbara Byrd-Bennett asks where they were ten years ago, it’s more than insulting, it’s ignorant.

Because for well over a decade — back when Byrd-Bennett was closing schools in Cleveland and Emanuel was raking in his own millions as an investment banker — the activists and organizations now opposing school closings have been pushing for progressive tax reform and real TIF reform.

But instead of rallying people to begin talking about a realistic solution, one that goes to the roots of these problems — instead of even attempting to move beyond talking points to a grown-up conversation over budget problems or the pension crisis — Emanuel has chosen a path that has produced sharp division and conflict.  And it doesn’t begin to address the district’s serious financial problems.



What could go wrong?

Better schools?


]]> 1