School facilities bill heads to governor’s desk

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Once declared dead, a senate bill that would lengthen the process for closing CPS schools and force district leaders to be more transparent is now sitting on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk.

Under Senate Bill 620, Chicago Public School officials would be required to draft a ten-year facilities plan and a five-year capital plan with community input.  School closings and consolidations would be announced by Dec. 1. Historically, school closings and consolidations have been announced in January or February. This year, interim CEO Terry Mazany waited until March to announce closings. 

SB620 passed the Senate in April and then stalled in the House executive committee for weeks.  At one point the bill appeared to be on its last legs, mostly because it was not supported by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

But Emanuel eventually threw his support behind the bill after a key concession was made.  The version of the bill passed by the General Assembly does not allow a task force of community members to override CPS decisions about closings and consolidations. 

“I think it’s a step forward, but it’s a substantially weaker bill,” said Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change.  “The central Board, although it has to divulge a lot more information and has to go through a lot more procedures, is still the final decision-maker.”

The bill is the result of work by the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force after community activists, frustrated by the school closing process, made their case to state lawmakers. This winter, they submitted recommendations to the legislature on what serious facilities reform ought to look like.  

Task Force member Cecile Carroll, also the director of West Side community group Blocks Together, said the “major pieces” of every one of the Task Force’s recommendations were included.

Supporters said the bill requires CPS officials to divulge the reasoning behind why they targeted specific schools for closings and not other similar schools. 

“School closings never seem to be based on information that makes sense to the school community,” said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.  “We’ve had some incredibly serious problems that have needed to be addressed for some time.”

Chicago Teachers Union spokesperson Liz Brown said the bill should make the process more transparent.  “Hopefully better decisions will be made about our facilities, not just in terms of finances but in terms of student safety and education equity.”

 

With that in mind, community leaders also say they know they have to be diligent to make sure that CPS officials follow the new law.

“We’re gonna very aggressively monitor what the Board does, and hold them to this new law,” Moore said.