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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.

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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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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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