Bill to delay school closings announcement moves forward

November 28, 2012

SPRINGFIELD – CPS took another step to getting a critical deadline on school closures extended to March 31 when the House voted 84-28 Wednesday in favor of an amended Senate Bill 547.

Without an extension, CPS would have to make public – by Saturday – a list of schools that the board and new CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett plan to close at the end of the current school year.

Many of the supporters of the House version of the bill, HB 1957 – including the bill’s own sponsor, Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) – expressed strong reluctance to granting the deadline extension.

To reach the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn, the House and Senate need to concur with each other’s amendments. Either action, or both, can occur at any time before the General Assembly adjourns Thursday. Quinn is likely to sign the final legislation.

In a statement, Byrd-Bennett said that the delay is needed to ensure that the district has “the necessary time to work with the community to identify the steps we need to take in the coming months to right-size our district and better invest our limited resources, which are currently being spread too thin. More time means we can work in true partnership with our school communities and listen to their concerns and ideas.”

Opponents of the extension wanted a moratorium for at least a year. Closing 100 or so schools, as the district is said to be planning, is a complicated and time-consuming process if all who are affected are consulted.

Both SB 547 and HB 1957 contain language now requiring such consultation.

The district will be required every year to “make reasonable and demonstrated efforts to ensure” that students dislocated by any action “receive a comparable level of social support services” as were available at their previous school, and that class sizes do not exceed those established under CPS policy as a result of any school action.

Another provision moves from November 1 to October 1 the requirement that the CPS CEO publish “guidelines for school actions,” and newly requires that those guidelines “be created with the involvement of local school councils, parents, educators and community organizations.”

Those constituencies were represented at a public hearing of the House Executive Committee on Tuesday, a hearing that featured eruptions of anger when it appeared that the committee would vote to allow the deadline extension without taking testimony from those who opposed it.

Legislators skeptical of CPS

The House debate on SB 547 centered mostly on the perceived past failures of CPS to respond to complaints by citizens from low-income and minority neighborhoods that the district is not attentive to their concerns.

Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago) strongly urged opposition to SB 547 in response to the anger and frustration expressed by Chicagoans who traveled to Springfield to oppose the bill when it was considered by the House Executive Committee (which approved it 11-0).

“I want to see the Chicago school system succeed … but this is not an agreed bill,” Dunkin said. He demanded to know if the organizations opposed to the bill – such the Chicago Teachers Union and a number of community groups – had come around to supporting it. Neither Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who sponsored the amended bill, nor Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago), a critic who was instrumental in negotiating the amendments, were able to satisfy Dunkin that any of the groups had withdrawn their opposition.

Rep. Robert Prichard (R-Sycamore), one of the Republican caucus leaders on education policy, rose to support the bill after having been given “an opportunity to have breakfast” Wednesday morning with Byrd-Bennett and other legislators. Prichard said he was impressed by Byrd-Bennett’s assurances that the past “dismal” performance of the CPS would be improved in the future.

No legislators in either chamber had anything positive to say about CPS performance in recent years. One senator after another rose to express “reluctant” support for HB 1957, as amended. But unlike the House, none of the senators withheld a “yes” vote on the bill.

“We are concerned about what’s been going on over at the CPS,” said Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago). “We hear story after story after story,” he said, describing reports of children attending classes held “on balconies above gymnasiums” or “in hallways,” especially in southwest Chicago neighborhoods that are heavily Latino.

Martinez did not disagree. “We know there definitely is a problem,” she said. “We have a new CEO who I believe should be allowed the time to look at the bigger picture” of school closings and other actions. She recounted the statistics: The district has 100,000 more classroom seats than it has students, at least 140 schools are less than half occupied, and closing one school would save an estimated $500,000 to $800,000.

“I, too, am a little reluctant,” Martinez said, “but I’m also hopeful [because] we have a new CEO and I think she gets it.”