State task force to ask for school closing moratorium

January 13, 2012

State legislative task force members Thursday night accused CPS leaders of “playing games” and being disingenuous in engaging parents and community members as they move to close and turnaround schools.

 Especially upsetting to members was the fact that throngs of people were paid and bused into community hearings last week to speak in favor of closings, and that the principal of a school slated for closing tried to force students to transfer over Christmas break.

“We want to play nice,” said State Senator Iris Martinez. “But what we have seen is not nice.”

The Illinois Educational Facilities Task Force approved a resolution that CPS was out of compliance with House Bill 630—a bill passed last year that requires the school district to be transparent and follow clear procedures when leaders make facility changes. The only member who did not vote in favor of the resolution was Michael Rendina, who works for CPS as the director of Intergovernmental Affairs

In itself, the resolution does not carry with it much weight. But State Rep. Cynthia Soto, who serves as chairwoman of the task force, said it will be included in a report the task force must submit to legislators. Also, Soto and Martinez said they are going to prepare a bill calling for a one-year moratorium on school closings.

“We just need them to slow down,” she said. Soto noted CPS leadership is new and many of them are not knowledgeable enough about Chicago to make such substantial changes.

In 2009, Soto introduced a similar moratorium. It passed the House of Representatives but an amended bill that withdrew the moratorium and created the facilities task force was eventually signed into law. The task force then crafted and won approval of House Bill 630.

Task force members also demanded that CPS leaders make changes to the community and public hearings. The first round of hearings were last Friday in various venues, but not in the schools that stand to be affected by the actions. At the same locations, a second round of hearings are set to take place next Friday.

Blocks Together co-director Cecile Carroll told Rendina that she wants that changed so that hearings take place in the schools. She also said she would like people with alternative plans to have an opportunity to present them outside of the hearings, where those who sign up to talk have time limits.

As he did for most of the meeting, Rendina took notes, but did not provide any definitive answers or agree to make any changes. On Dec. 1, the task force invited CEO Jean-Claude Brizard to a meeting, but that has yet to be scheduled.

Rendina also attempted to explain why some 80 students at Guggenheim School had transfer notices delivered to their homes over Christmas break.

Guggenheim teacher Kimberly Walls said none of these children or parents asked to be transferred to another school and were called several times by school staff insisting they take the transfer. Transfer papers were slipped under doors or taped on them.

The parents reached out to teachers and staff, who contacted the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless for legal help. Most of them came back to Guggenheim on Monday. But the students were dropped from the school's computer system, creating a range of issues such as them not being registered for after-school programs, said school staff.

Rendina said that a few parents, though admittedly not as many as were handed transfers, talked about leaving the school at a parents' meeting in December. He said the principal, who is new to Guggenheim, thought he would help them along by providing them transfer notices and point them to better options.

“I think he had good intentions,” he said.

Many of these students had addresses outside Guggenheim’s attendance boundary, but were classified as homeless and therefore have the right to stay in the school.

Martinez seemed incredulous that a principal would take these steps. “You mean while the school closing is just a proposal, in the meantime, the principal is transferring students.”

Martinez also was not happy with the attendance of outsiders at the community hearings.

State Representative Esther Golar said she was at the meeting about Reed School in Englewood, which is set to receive Guggenheim students, and saw people arrive on a bus.  She said she talked to them and discovered they were from a halfway house and were paid $25 to come to the meeting.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.