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Fuzzy math: the CPS budget crisis

As citywide opposition to Mayor Emanuel’s massive school closing program comes into sharper focus every day, the rationale for the plan gets fuzzier and fuzzier.

Take the question of money.

When CPS chief Barbara Byrd Bennett accepted her utilization commission’s call for taking high school closings off the table, the potential savings from school closings was significantly reduced, says Dwayne Truss, organizer of the Save Our Neighborhood Schools coalition on the West Side.

That’s because high schools are a lot bigger and costlier to operate than elementary schools.  Closing elementary schools saves you less.

Publicly, CPS has projected annual savings of $500,000 to $800,000 for each school closed.  Privately, their estimates are lower – as low as $140,000 per school.  And they estimate that upfront closing costs, including severance pay, security, and moving costs, could be as high as $4.5 million per school, potentially wiping out any savings for many years.

With only elementary school closings, we’d be smart to expect the savings to come in on the lower end — if at all.

Truss points to an additional cost that he insists must be taken into account – the loss of hundreds, maybe thousands of good jobs for African American teachers, principals, lunchroom workers and engineers.

Under a city administration hellbent on eliminating public service jobs that form the backbone of the black middle class – where black unemployment rates are more than double the rate for whites — and in a district facing civil rights compliants for targeting black teachers, he sees layoffs resulting from school closings as another drag on the economic vitality of the neighborhoods.

 

The sky is falling!

Then there’s the billion-dollar deficit, which we’re told time and again means we have to close schools.

Last week CTU blew the whistle on CPS’s budget manipulations, showing that instead of a deficit requiring the district to drain its reserve fund and deny teachers compensation for the longer day, the final audited budget showed a surplus of $344 million.

“Perhaps it’s time to have an honest budget discussion, before any schools are closed,” union president Karen Lewis said.

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Closing schools without a plan

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.

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The charter contradiction

Barbara Byrd-Bennett talks about reestablishing trust between CPS and parents and communities – then she turns around and says that closing neighborhood schools has nothing to do with expanding charters.

Since nobody believes that, continuing to repeat it doesn’t seem like a very good way for the new CPS chief to build trust.

Recent revelations by the Chicago Tribune show that the rhetorical disconnect between school closings and charter openings is part of a conscious political strategy.

A CPS document — which “lays out multiple scenarios for closing neighborhood schools and opening privately-run charters,” according to the Tribune — notes the main contradiction in the administration’s claim that closings are necessary due to underutilization and budget constraints: big plans to open scores of new charter schools.

This “core prong of CPS’s academic improvement strategy” – charter expansion – creates a “perceived inconsistency,” according to the document. Therefore large-scale charter expansion must be held off until after large-scale neighborhood school closings are accomplished.

Indeed, the problem is that charter expansion reveals that closing schools isn’t at all about “right-sizing” or saving money – it’s all about privatization.

Politicized

Byrd-Bennett has emphasized that the September 10 document – and specifically its “pre-decisional discussion” of closing 95 schools, mainly on the South and West Sides – predates her administration.  Byrd-Bennett was chief education officer at the time; she was named CEO a month later.

But Byrd-Bennett’s first proposal, a five-year moratorium on school closings, comes straight out of the September 10 document, according to the Tribune.

Besides helping to sell the legislature on an extension of the deadline for announcing school closings, the document shows, the moratorium has the political utility of creating a sense of separation between school closings and charter openings.

The document reveals a highly politicized approach to implementing school policy – a hallmark of the Emanuel administration, which has seen paid protestors and huge media campaigns attacking teachers.  The document proposes establishing a ‘war room” to monitor community opposition to closings, and outlines possible steps to push back against that opposition.

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More questions: charters, partners, and planning

(This is the second of two posts – part one looks at questions for the Commission on School Utilization including enrollment numbers and savings from closing schools.)

 

Mayor Emanuel, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and utilization commission chair Frank Clark have taken the position that “right-sizing” the district has nothing to do with the district’s expansion of charter schools.

One has to do with declining enrollment and snowballing deficits, the other with choice and quality, according to this view.

The argument would work better if CPS’s enrollment and utilization numbers held up; if school closings actually saved significant amounts of money; and if charters consistently offered quality rather than undermining most parents’ first choice – a quality neighborhood school.

Even then, though, it’s hard to separate the proliferation of charters from enrollment declines at neighborhood schools.

[Based on revelations in Tuesday’s Tribune, the separation of school closings and charter expansions is purely strategic; when officials say they are unrelated, they are lying.]

 

A hundred new schools

In the past decade, as CPS lost 30,000 students, it’s opened more than 100 new schools with space for nearly 50,000 additional students, according to a new report from CTU.

While CPS closed scores of schools during that period, the number of schools in the district went from 580 to over 680.

“To the extent excess capacity exists, the main driver is the district’s aggressive charter proliferation campaign,” according to the report.  “The current ‘utilization crisis’ has been manufactured largely to justify the replacement of neighborhood schools by privatized charters.”

Throughout Renaissance 2010, “there was no facilities plan” and facilities decisions were “ad hoc and haphazard,” according to CTU’s report.  Adding to the confusion was the practice of approving charter schools without specifying their location, and some charters’ practice of repeatedly relocating their schools.

“CPS has opened charters haphazardly, without considering how they affect nearby schools,” according to a Sun Times editorial.

As Catalyst points out, new charter schools have been concentrated in the community areas with the largest number of schools listed as “underutilized” by CPS.  North Lawndale, with the most schools now rated as underutilized, has gotten more charter schools than any other community.

In general, those schools aren’t outperforming neighborhood schools, according to Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.

 

A new round of failure

While school closings and new charter schools have been concentrated in low-income African American communities, these students are actually better served by neighborhood schools, according to CTU, citing reading score gains 10 percent higher in traditional schools than in charters in such areas.

Meanwhile students in closing schools have suffered mobility-related academic setbacks, faced transportation and security issues, and landed in worse-performing schools – while achievement rates in receiving schools have been adversely impacted.

It looks like the very students whom CPS has failed for a generation – whose schools have been systematically neglected and underresourced – are once again being failed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Questions for the commission: enrollment, finances

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.

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School closings: what ‘everyone knows’

“Everyone knows schools must be closed in large numbers,” according to a Chicago Sun-Times editorial published Thursday.

The editorial questions the savings involved in school closings and calls on CPS to be “more open and inclusive,” and to release a new facilities master plan required by state law before more closings are announced.

But does “everyone” really know schools must be closed?  At hearings on proposed closings in recent years, there’s been consistent opposition – until paid protestors, later connected to Mayor Emanuel’s political operatives, began showing up.

We asked around, and here are some responses:

 

Laurene Heybach, Director, The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless:

The notion that “everyone knows [Chicago public] schools must be closed in large numbers” is a remarkably un-researched assertion. As a member of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, I can say unequivocally that such is not the case. And CPS has never been able to make such a case.

Parents want quality neighborhood schools, not experiments (charters) which drain resources from their neighborhood school and don’t deliver. We hear this again and again, and parents are getting increasingly frustrated with a city that can help decorate the Willis Tower but tells neighborhood schools “no” for every request, from a math teacher to a working heating system to an air conditioner. Indeed, one parent spoke directly to the CPS representative on our task force to say precisely that: the Board of Education’s answer to just about anything our parents want is “no.”

It’s top-down and political people who push closures.  This is why we need to return facility planning to our communities and stakeholders — parents, teachers, students and principals — and take it out of the hands of politicians.

 

J. Brian Malone, Executive Director, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization:

Everyone knows there has been population loss on the South and West Sides of the city. The issue with underutilization, at this stage, is largely the result of CPS cramming charter and contract schools down the throats of communities of color, while also:

(1) raiding the coffers to fund these schools that do very little (if anything) to improve educational outcomes, but do a great deal to create wealth for the private operators and investors; and

(2) siphoning the human capital, material, and financial resources from neighborhood schools, which make them look unattractive when compared to the “new” school with the great marketing budget.

Disinvesting in neighborhood schools has done more to reduce the appeal, and by default the enrollment, of neighborhood schools, creating this manufactured need to close schools, which was orchestrated by the Renaissance 2010 plan and continued forward.

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Don Moore’s legacy

Don Moore’s life had an impact far greater than many more famous and powerful people:  more than anyone, he was responsible for creating and defending Chicago’s Local School Councils, while demonstrating their value as the most effective vehicle this city has seen for improving urban education.

He was among the first to push democratic school governance as the solution to Chicago’s schools crisis in the 1980s, and in the following decade, as politicians and CPS administrators sought to recentralize power – and brought the city’s business and philanthropic elites back under their sway – he defended LSCs from legislative attacks and mobilized community involvement in LSC elections.

Meanwhile, in a remarkable body of research, he demonstrated that while central office interventions from probation to turnarounds had little effect, the high-poverty schools that showed steady long-term improvement in Chicago were those with what he termed “school-based democracy.”

“It’s not a stretch to say that had he not been doing this work, Local School Councils would have disappeared from the scene – and we would have lost one of the most important engines of educational improvement in the nation,” said Ray Boyer, who directed public affairs for the MacArthur Foundation until 2004 and collaborated on projects with Moore after that.

As reported by Substance, Catalyst and the Sun Times, Donald R. Moore died last week at age 70.

In 1977 Moore founded Designs For Change, a multi-faceted organization that housed his rigorous research along with organizing, training, and advocacy efforts.  When a decade-long school crisis came to a head with the 1987 teachers strike, Moore seized the opportunity to rally community groups and business leaders to his vision of school-based democratic governance.

Critical role

Amid a vast and often conflicting array of groups pushing reform, Moore “played a critical role” in creating and pushing legislation that established LSCs in 1988, according to Mary O’Connell’s fascinating account of that struggle.  As Catalyst notes, when O’Connell asked participants in that movement who was “most responsible” for school reform, Moore was named most often.

He was “brilliant” in “bringing a theoretical concept into reality,” said Rod Estvan of Access Living, a former Designs board member, and he was commited to the idea that even in a society scarred by poverty and racism, “if people had some democratic control over their schools, they could make them better.”

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‘Change is hard’

“People are anxious” because “change is hard,” said Mayor Emanuel the other day, referring to the school closings and turnarounds which his Board of Education approved as expected Wednesday night.

“But,” he added, “watching, year in and year out, children captured in a system that’s failing, is harder.”

Yes, change is hard.  And year in and year out, the system has been failing its students by denying resources to neighborhood schools attended by the vast majority of students, setting them up for failure and then handing them over one by one to private entities, which get all the goodies (and still don’t perform).

That’s the status quo, of course.  And in an achievement Orwell would find remarkable, it’s that status quo that’s being defended by people like Emanuel and the Chicago Tribune, as they rail about challenging the status quo.

More on AUSL

The other day we noted discrepancies between AUSL’s approach at Orr Academy High School and the CPS code of student conduct – which among other things, says that suspensions aren’t a first resort, students get to respond to accusations, and kids won’t be turned out on the street for not having their uniform.

On Tuesday, Designs For Change released a report exposing AUSL’s failure to come anywhere near meeting the promises it made to raise achievement at the schools it’s taken over.  (Contrary to what you may have read, annual growth rates are unimpressive at many AUSL elementary schools.  At elementary schools “turned around” by CPS itself, they’re very low.)

Now the Occupied Chicago Tribune has published an astonishing interview with two Orr teachers who describe utter administrative incompetence creating “chaos” and a “toxic atmosphere” that is dragging kids down.  (Real News Network has video.) All hat and no cattle doesn’t come close to describing this outfit.  There’s a vast amount of hype covering up an execrable record.

Now AUSL has six more schools.  Talk about failing our kids.

No one home

Emanuel wasn’t concerned about the quiet demonstration past his house on Monday, but at the Tribune, Eric Zorn was.  It’s “inherently intimidating,” he writes.  He’s concerned that people might intimidate Rahm Emanuel.  That’s a fresh take.

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