Anger with CPS over closings and turnarounds spreads in the Legislature

March 26, 2012

High level employees of Chicago Public Schools took an unprecedented scolding Monday on the subject of school closings and turnarounds in the city – and even more heat for CPS’ perceived “disrespect” for the Illinois Legislature by the absence of its leader, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, at a hearing at the Capitol.

In the end, the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee decided to call for a joint hearing of four legislative committees – the education committees and appropriations committees of both the House and the Senate – and to force Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to attend even if they have to be subpoenaed to make that happen.

“We have been bamboozled again by CPS,” exclaimed Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago), complaining that constituents “got two minutes to talk and then they cut them off, they cut them off” when those citizens tried to object to a school closing at a CPS hearing late last year.

“With all due respect, it was not done properly for the community,” she lectured the CPS officials. The district had “people who were actually paid” to attend the hearing and support the school closing. “They were all plants. They were not from the community.”

Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) accused CPS of “destroying our future,” the children of Chicago. “You purposely close schools and send children in harm’s way.”

Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) who has sponsored a bill calling for a moratorium on CPS school facilities actions, looked at the CPS officials and implored, “What does it take [for CPS] to understand? We’re just spinning our wheels. We’re stuck in a ditch and can’t get out.

“I’m just a little bit upset,” Rep. Kenneth Duncan told the CPS representatives at Monday’s hearing. “Today is not a good indication [that the CPS Board] is doing right by the kids,” he said. He called upon the CPS “chief executive officer and the chief educational officer and the chief financial officer … and all those other key chiefs [to meet with the committee] and show us some respect.”

He told committee chairperson Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) that the CPS representatives on hand Monday “should be removed from the panel up here and we should listen to the other guests who are serious,” referring to students and parents who had traveled to Springfield to protest CPS’ facilities actions.

Eventually, Chapa LaVia did dismiss Adam Anderson, whose title is Officer of Portfolio Planning & Strategy, and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Michael Rendina from the hearing. Then she invited members of the audience to offer testimony. Two students took her up on that offer.

Pointedly, Chapa LaVia said the controversy surrounding CPS school closure decisions “is now out of Chicago,” indicating that legislators from all parts of Illinois are now interested in the outcome of Soto’s bill and a similar one pending in the Senate also requiring a moratorium on CPS facilities actions.

Rep. Robert Prichard (R-Sycamore) illustrated the point by asserting that the CPS is “not serving the people of Chicago” as it should. In the committee hearing and again at a brief news conference under the Capitol rotunda, Prichard stressed his belief that the CPS “is too large” to be managed effectively.

The failure of Brizard to attend the committee hearing infuriated legislators at least as much as reports from constituents about what one representative called the “chaos” resulting from precipitous school closings in Chicago’s minority neighborhoods.

At one point Chapa LaVia had to halt the hearing and remove the committee members briefly to a nearby room just to calm them down. Chapa LaVia later told Catalyst Chicago she had never before taken such action and had never even seen it done before at the Capitol.

Sandra Pihos (R-Glen Ellyn), the Republican spokesperson on the committee, made the motion to call for the joint hearing of the four committees, and she specifically listed Brizard, other top CPS officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel as witnesses whose appearance should be sought.

Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Chicago) is Vice-Chair of the Appropriations Committee for Elementary and Secondary Education funding. Expressing her frustration with CPS actions and lack of “transparency,” she said if it takes “holding the funding [from CPS to gain its cooperation], so be it.”

“Is [CEO] Brizard just a figurehead?” demanded Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), sarcastically implying that Rendina and Anderson were not high enough on the CPS totem pole to address the committee. She also demanded to know who obtained contracts and how much they are paid for school turnarounds.

“Someone is making big dollars … to manage the turnarounds,” Davis said.

Anderson told her that a fee of “$435 per student goes to fund the operating model” of turnaround schools. He cited AUSL, a nonprofit organization created initially to prepare teachers for CPS. David Vitale , a former AUSL board chairman, is now president of the CPS Board.

As to why Brizard was a no-show, Rendina explained that the district expected the hearing to be on the “subject matter” of facility interventions and that Anderson “is the expert” on that subject. CEO Brizard did not believe presence would be needed at the Capitol.

Chapa LaVia said the committee was “operating on the assumption” that the CPS would take the hearing as seriously as state agencies and other organizations do when the subject matter is exclusively about them.  “You have to understand the gravity of this,” she said.