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School closings, the law, and alternatives

School closings to be announced by CPS on Thursday—expected to be unprecedented in scope — are the first under a new state school facilities planning law, intended to bring transparency and accountability to decisions over school buildings.

But does the school district’s new guidelines for school actions, which must be finalized by November 30, abide by the spirit of the law?  Many of its proponents – and some of its legislative sponsors – say no.

Meanwhile community groups continue to call on CPS to work with communities to improve struggling schools, rather than imposing top-down strategies that have no record of success.

“I don’t see them as being really ready to adhere to SB 630,” said State Representative Esther Golar, a member of the legislative task force which developed the bill.   The legislation “was intended to require CPS to work as partner with parents, teachers, and the community.”

She adds: “That’s something they haven’t been doing….And they’re still saying we’re going to run the schools the way we want to, and you don’t have any say-so.”

“It’s the same failed policies,” said Dwayne Truss, co-chair of the Austin Community Action Council, established by CPS.  “They just want to open up buildings for more charter schools.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Quinn to sign school facilities reform

Governor Quinn will sign SB 630, mandating transparency and accountability in CPS facility planning, Saturday, August 20 at 11:30 a.m. at the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, 3015 W. Division.

The Humboldt Park location is in the district of the bill’s sponsors, State Representative Cynthia Soto and State Senator Irene Martinez. It was CPS closings of thriving neighborhood schools in the area in order to provide buildings for Renaissance 2010 projects – inspiring the kind of community outrage that has accompanied each year’s round of school closings — that spurred the two legislators to seek reform.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Whittier, the Tribune is duped

The Chicago Tribune wants to hold Whittier parents to account for the costs of delaying a new library at the Pilsen elementary school.

There’s another way of looking at it.  You could also hold CPS leadership to account for commencing the project in a manner that seemed designed to foment a confrontation.

You might even ask about contracts being let before the Board of Education approved the project.

Read the rest of this entry »

Whittier parents hold fast

CPS chief Jean Claude Brizard may have thought he could carry out a preemptive strike against the Whittier Parents Committee.  He couldn’t.

Read the rest of this entry »

Grassroots victory: SB 620 passes

In a major victory for grassroots school activists, a bill reforming CPS facilities planning and school closing procedures passed the General Assembly yesterday.

SB 620 passed the House unanimously and the Senate by a vote of 59 to 1.

The bill will require CPS to create a ten-year facilities master plan and a longterm capital spending plan, along with a detailed annual capital budget.  “This will allow the public and elected officials to ‘follow the money,'” points out Jackie Leavy in a post on the PURE blog.

CPS must issue minimum facility standards, so some schools aren’t left in utter neglect while capital funds flow to political favorites.

The bill requires CPS to give notice of school closings and other actions by December 1 of each year, reflecting a longstanding complaint from parents that school closings were announced long after deadlines had passed for schools that require applications.

It will require three hearings for each school where action is proposed, including two in the community – and it requires 30 days notice for the hearings.  As PURE’s Julie Woestehoff points out, hearings have typically been called with very little notice.

It will require a transition plan for all students in school closings.

In her post, Woestehoff alludes to the long history behind this effort, spearheaded for years by Jackie Leavy at the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.  A staunch advocate for accountability who is widely admired among Chicago’s grassroots activists, Leavy shepherded the work  of the legislative task force which studied CPS facilities planning and recommended the principles behind SB 620.

The impetus for the bill grew as communities confronted annual closings – and growing inequities in capital spending — motivated by the scramble for buildings set off by Renaissance 2010.  (In its very last meeting this week — in the face of a massive deficit, with a new round of teacher layoffs likely — Mayor Daley’s school board approved over $12 million to renovate two buildings for Urban Prep Charter campuses, Catalyst reports.)

The legislative sponsors, Rep. Cynthia Soto and Sen. Irene Martinez, responded to their constituents’ complaints after thriving neighborhood schools in their districts were closed to make way for Renaissance 2010 schools.

Another impetus was legal action by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which charged that Ren 2010 closings violated a 1999 court agreement (in Salazar v. Edwards) by displacing homeless children.

CCH pushed for transitional services and other opportunities for all children in schools that were being closed; CPS would agree only for homeless children, said CCH’s Laurene Heybach.  The new legislation extends those protections to all children.

Back from the dead: school planning bill gets a hearing

A school planning bill which has been widely and repeatedly declared dead is scheduled for a hearing in the House executive committee on Wednesday.

SB 620, which passed the Senate by a wide margin in March, would require facilities and capital planning by CPS and guarantee advance notification and community consultation in school closings.

Strong bipartisan legislative support and strong pressure from community groups succeeded in pushing the bill forward despite strong opposition by Mayor Emanuel.

Emanuel was said to be personally calling legislators to oppose the bill.  But he failed to respond to repeated efforts by its sponsors to discuss changes that would address specific objections he might have, according to supporters of the bill.

His opposition appears to be more general, viewing guidelines on school actions and oversight by an independent commission as an imposition on his total mayoral control over CPS.

At a House education committee meeting in April, a CPS lobbyist cited “major, major concerns” but focused in particular on “unfunded mandates,” using a catch-phrase intended to appeal to Republicans and referring specifically to “the burden imposed on the school district by requiring audits and reports.”

Some basic rules

Republicans didn’t rise to the bait.  “There ought to be some basic rules on facility closings, rather than one reason for this school, another for that school,” said Rep. Jerry Mitchell (R-Rock Falls).

In fact, while CPS presents school closings as required by underutilization or financial pressure, they are driven by the need for buildings to house a poorly-planned explosion of new charter and other schools under Renaissance 2010.

“And they are looking for the better buildings and the better locations,” said Nonah Burney, a professor of education at Roosevelt who represented Grand Boulevard Federation on the task force.

The district wastes millions of dollars by moving schools around in an ad-hoc manner, she said.

There’s a lot of money at stake. CPS has been spending $1 billion a year on capital projects, according to the task force, yet more than half of CPS schools have had no capital improvements for five years.

“We should have a standard for safe, educationally appropriate facilities, a minimum for every building, and work up from there,” said Burney.

And we should plan for school closings with parents and communities in order to minimize the disruption to students’ academic progress, she said.

A long history

The bill has a long history, with schools struggling for repairs and communities opposing sudden closings, with school closings that have moved low-income children repeatedly and have often ratcheted up violence in schools.  CPS has repeatedly promised to fix the process and failed to do so.

The task force spent a year studying the issue.  It’s pure coincidence that a new mayor was elected as the process neared completion.

It could be that Emanuel would eventually institute better planning at CPS.  Last week he lectured 4th graders at Walsh Elementary about the importance of long-term planning before announcing an order requiring a long-term financial plan for the city. “It is our responsibility to make sure that we are spending the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars wisely,” he said, announcing the executive order.

But his commitment to expanding charters means that the underlying dynamic behind the annual seizure of school buildings will remain.  His failure to negotiate over the bill despite strong concerns on the part of legislators does not portend increased accountability.

At the April hearing, Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Sycamore) noted that he’d been asked to serve on the Chicago school facilities task force based on his experience on a downstate school board.  “It just appalled me all through this process that there has not been a basic level of communication” from CPS to parents and communities impacted by its decisions, he said.

“As we look at the bill…there’s a lot of process in there that small school districts have been doing for decades, where you have a master plan, where you communicate with the community and with teachers about what the plans are for the building,” he said.

In Chicago, “these very basic things haven’t been done.”

“I don’t see what the threat is,” said Burney.  “We’re not saying you can’t close schools.  We’re saying we want to watch you.  We want to know ahead of time.  We want you to know ahead of time.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Parents push school planning reform

With days left on the legislative calendar, parents are ramping up efforts to push a bill reforming school facility planning through Springfield. Read the rest of this entry »

Report: CPS officials flee Avondale

It looks like the community proposal prepared jointly by parents at Avondale and Logandale (see previous post) will not be considered by CPS – unless the Board of Education decides tomorrow that, as Ron Huberman told the City Council last year, the process is flawed and the parents deserve a say in the future of their children’s schools. Read the rest of this entry »

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