Aldermen want more transparency, hearings on school closings

October 4, 2012

Ald. Bob Fioretti
Ald. Bob Fioretti

Thirty-two aldermen—nearly two-thirds of the entire City Council—signed on to a resolution introduced Wednesday demanding that CPS officials tell them which schools they plan to close, how they chose those schools and why they plan to open more charter schools when the district already has excess capacity.

The resolution, introduced by Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward), calls for hearings on these issues to begin soon—about two months before state law mandates that CPS announce its plans for this year. City Council Education Committee Chairwoman Latasha Thomas (17th Ward) did not sign the resolution and her office has not yet responded to questions about whether she will schedule the hearings.

“I hope she has the courage to do it,” Fioretti says, noting that he thinks she should respect that so many of her peers support the resolution.

The City Council has held hearings on school closings in the past. However, it is usually much later in the process. Last year’s first hearing on school closings was in February, a day before the Board of Education approved the measures.

The call for hearings is the latest move signaling a backlash against City Hall’s tight control of the school system and the decisions made by the board and district. Another sign: Fioretti and other aldermen have joined in the chorus of voices calling for an elected School Board.

Even some state lawmakers are looking into revamping the way the power-brokers in CPS are chosen. La Shawn Ford, a West Side Democrat, plans to introduce a bill calling for a task force to study the idea of an elected board. He held a hearing this past week and will hold two more later in October.

Aldermen are concerned about school closings and frustrated with the way the school system is being run, says political analyst Dick Simpson. During the September teachers strike, news came out that confirming what many observers already knew: CPS officials plan on closing as many as 120 schools over the next couple of years.

CPS leaders point out that the district has more capacity than it has students.  

Aldermen have no power to control what happens in the school district, yet what happens in the schools has consequences for the people they represent. “They are worried that it will be a problem if schools close in their ward and they are seeing what they can do to lower the number,” Simpson says.

Simpson says there’s also growing frustration with the tight control Mayor Rahm Emanuel has over the school board and the district. Reforms of the past have been driven by frustration, but usually the changes were driven by the mayor, he says.

“There would need to be some additional pressure and we are not there yet,” Simpson says.

But Fioretti and Ford say they are getting an increasing number of phone calls from constituents upset with the way decisions are made in the school district.

Ford says activists in his ward wanted him to introduce a bill that would immediately end the mayor’s power to appoint the School Board, but says that he wants to look at the pros and cons of an elected board first. The task force could end up recommending that the board be split with four mayoral appointees and three elected members, he says.

The current makeup of the school board is driving some of the calls for change, he says.

“People want a change when they look at Penny Pritzker being on the school board,” Ford says. “What does she know about how to educate inner-city kids?”

Low graduation rates and poor academic performance also make people question having power concentrated at City Hall, Ford adds.

Fioretti echoes many of Ford’s sentiments. He says CPS officials should be more forthcoming about the school closings as a way to engage more people in the process.

“It should be transparent and a collaborative effort,” he says.

The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which is comprised of legislators and community activists, also has tried to weigh in on the process. In 2011, state lawmakers detailed a process that CPS officials are supposed to follow as they make these decisions. 

But task force members did not think CPS did a good job last year in following the steps and passed a resolution that CPS was non-compliant.