Aldermen take CPS to task over school closings

November 20, 2012

New CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said that she wants to separate the discussion on closing under-utilized schools from the discussion about opening charter schools, but at a City Council committee hearing Tuesday it was clear that Byrd-Bennett is unlikely to get her wish.

CPS officials have said that they plan to close as many as 100 schools this year in order to deal with an overcapacity issue of more than 100,000 seats. The situation is a “crisis” because the district is facing a deficit next year of $1 billion, said Todd Babbitz, CPS chief transformation officer.

 “For years we have made ends meet, but we are out of options,” he told aldermen at the hearing.

CPS officials said they will save between $500,000 and $800,000 a year per closed school, which, at best, will take care of 8 percent of the projected deficit. Babbitz admitted Tuesday that consolidating schools is “only one piece of the puzzle,” but said it will allow CPS to provide remaining schools with better facilities, including libraries, playgrounds and air conditioning.

The Education and Child Development Committee hearing was on a resolution that calls for CPS officials to tell aldermen 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.

Committee Chairwoman Latasha Thomas (17th Ward) did not sign onto the resolution, but said she always holds hearings on school closings. She also said this is the first of several hearings that she plans to hold.

Aldermen in year’s past have had hearings on school closings and debated calling for a moratorium (but have never approved such a resolution). Because Chicago has mayoral control over the schools, aldermen have no power in realm of school district business.

At one point, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward) asked CPS officials if they would commit to putting off the opening of charter schools for at least a year, as they try to “right-size” the district.

Babbitz said he was not in a position to make that promise. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was not in attendance at the hearing.

Frank Clark, former Com Ed chairman who was recently appointed by Byrd-Bennett to serve on a school closing commission, also did not speak about charter schools. He said his commission was charged solely with looking at utilization and to come up with a list of schools to be closed. The commission will consider such factors as safety, transportation and the value a school has to the community.

Clark said he was not anti-charter schools, but that charter schools were not within the purview of the commission.

To that, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) said that the commission has too narrow a focus. “Charter schools are part of the bigger picture,” he said.

Babbitz said CPS has already committed to opening up 9 charter schools next school year.

And there could be more could be approved soon. CPS put out a request for proposals for new schools in August and, through that, got 13 applications.

Charter advocates say they have been told that CPS officials will make their recommendations on new schools to the Board of Education as soon as at the December board meeting. Babbitz also said the charter operators whose proposals that are not recommended could appeal the decision to the state.

On top of that, The Chicago Tribune reported in May that CPS jointly submitted a grant proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promising to open 60 more charter schools over the next five years.   

Testifying at the hearing, Chicago Teachers Union Organizer Joseph McDermott summed up the question that seemed to linger over the hearing, and perhaps the entire school closing situation.

“If we are to believe that we are closing schools for austerity and there is to be 50,000 charter seats added, are we going to be facing the same fiscal cliff in five years?” he said. “This seems like a zero-sum game.” 

The hearing comes less than a week before the state legislature’s veto session at which lawmakers are expected to vote on an amendment allowing CPS officials to extend the deadline on announcing proposed school closings from Dec. 1 to March 31. Once the school action proposals are announced, CPS still will have to hold official community hearings.

Babbitz said the details haven’t been worked out, but recommendations likely won't make it to the CPS Board of Education agenda until the May board meeting—making it the latest such moves have been made.

Several aldermen and representatives from the CTU said they think that CPS should just wait until next year.

Fioretti said he has had schools in his ward close late in the school year and that parents were left in a bad situation. By then, deadlines to apply for magnet, selective enrollment and many charter schools will have passed.

Byrd-Bennett has said she plans to make sure that parents of targeted schools can still apply to these options. But she and district officials have yet to announce how that would work, especially given that acceptances to such schools will already be in place.

Ald. John Arena (45th Ward) pointed out that state law also calls for CPS to develop a master facilities plan, which isn’t set to be finalized until July. “I think you are putting the cart in front of the horse,” he said.

Arena and other aldermen pushed Clark and Babbitz about the timeline for things to happen, should the deadline be extended. For example, Clark said the commission will review utilization standards and hold community hearings in each neighborhood. The commission's first official meeting is next Tuesday.

Clark said he doesn’t know when different elements of the commission’s work will take place and even suggested it could go beyond the March 31st deadline.

“I think we can do what we have to do before March 31st, but I am not sure,” he said.


This story has been corrected.