School board members put off vote on charter schools

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After a public participation session dominated by objections to creating
more charter schools, CPS board members Wednesday held off on approving
the four new schools on the agenda, as well as renewing the charters of
six existing networks. After a public participation session dominated by objections to creating more charter schools, CPS board members Wednesday held off on approving the four new schools on the agenda, as well as renewing the charters of six existing networks.
The existing networks up for renewal were the largest ones in the city, including Chicago International Charter Schools, UNO and Noble Street. The board also decided not to vote on a $1 million contract with a software company and on handing a $247,000 contract to the New Teachers Project to help with hiring for turnarounds.

CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond released a statement from acting CEO Terry Mazany late Wednesday night indicating that the public comments were the reason they held off on a decision. “We will address these comments before making a final decision,” the statement read in part. 

The December board meeting was Mazany’s first one as district leader.

Among the concerns voiced at the meeting were that community members weren’t given enough time to debate the charters at issue. Also, teachers expressed concern about how adding the charters would impact neighborhood schools.

“This charter will pull from students from five surrounding public schools, and our concern is that charters are pulling students whose parents are most invested in the education process,” said Rosita Chatonda of the Chicago Teachers Union about the Englewood Montessori Charter.  “This creates a climate of haves and have-nots.” 

Chief Administrative Officer Robert Runcie said he did not know details of the board decision not to vote on the proposals, but that district officials are not backing off of their support of charter schools.

Rather, he said, it is likely that the board wanted more information about the charter schools or more time to develop a comprehensive plan around new schools.

He also said board members might be interested in making sure that the proper accountability measures are in place for charter schools. “We have to be tough on them, just like we have to be tough on neighborhood schools,” he said.

The charter school operators, however, were surprised by the board’s lack of action. Rita Nolan, executive director of the Montessori Network, Inc., which wants to put a charter school in Englewood, called waiting for a final decision excruciating. “It is never over until it is over,” she said.

Sam Finkelstein, who is board president of a group trying to install Legal Prep Charter School in West Town, said plans are moving forward. Englewood Montessori, Legal Prep and one proposed by Christopher House aren’t slated to be opened until September 2012 so they have some time to get their charters approved.

Finkelstein said he understands some of the concerns of the charter school critics. “We want real systemic change, but we can’t wait for it. We want to do something in the immediate future to make things a little bit better.”

While charter schools loomed large in the public comments, some also came to discuss the format of South Shore High School, which will be housed in a brand-new building next year. Some parents of existing South Shore high school students want to make sure their children get a chance to attend the newly-constructed school. But others in the community want to see the school start with freshmen and have several selective programs.

Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hariston, said she sees no point in transferring students from one poorly performing school into a new building.

“You are just doing window dressing by transferring a problem school where no one is learning,” she said.

Robert Starks, chairman of the board for the Black United Fund of Ill., said he was concerned that few children living in the neighborhood and in the surrounding community go to South Shore High School.   

 “We are trying to plan for the future, for the twenty-first century,” he said.  “We want a comprehensive, international school, and you have insisted on ignoring every agreement that we’ve made.”

A proposal for South Shore High School was not on the agenda Wednesday. But Runcie said that he expects that district officials will present a recommendation to the board soon. “It is a huge opportunity for the South Shore community and we only get one chance to get it right,” he said.