CPS to ask to delay school action announcements

November 2, 2012

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said today she plans to ask the state legislature to postpone by four months--from Dec. 1 to March 31--the announcement of proposed school actions.

CTU President Karen Lewis reiterated her stance that Byrd-Bennett put a moratorium on school closings for a year. She said waiting to make an announcement til March 31 doesn’t give parents and teachers enough time to prepare for a school closing the following fall.

“It is time to step back and do some analysis,” Lewis said.

But others seemed to welcome Byrd-Bennett’s desire to spend more time to get community feedback before making the announcements.

Byrd-Bennett, who just weeks ago took over the helm of Chicago Public Schools, rejected the idea of waiting a year. She said CPS has a projected $1 billion deficit and it would be fiscally irresponsible for her not to make some moves this year. CPS officials say they can save anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000 annually per school. 

Byrd-Bennett has refused to say how many schools she will close this year. However, the administration will hone in on servely underutilized schools. According to CPS, 140 schools are more than 50 percent underutilized.

The delay to March, Byrd-Bennett said, will give her the time she needs to engage the community in an “authentic” discussion. Also, on Friday, she appointed a nine-member Commission on School Utilization.

Commission members will be charged with holding public hearings, collecting information and coming up with recommendations about which schools to close. Byrd-Bennett did not commit to following the commission’s recommendations.

Among the commission members is State Sen. Iris Martinez, who is also co-chair of the Chicago Educational Facilities Taskforce. The taskforce, created by the General Assembly, pushed the bill that established the timeline for announcing school actions.

To get the deadline postponed, a lawmaker will have introduce a bill and it would have to be voted on during the veto session that starts Nov. 27. The other co-chair of the taskforce, Rep. Cynthia Soto, said she and her colleagues have a lot of questions for CPS before they support changing the law to extend the deadline. She said they have a meeting set up.

When the Chicago school facilities bill was approved in 2011, the timeline was seen as a major victory for activists. For a long time, they complained it was too late to let parents and teachers know in late winter or Spring that their school was to be closed.

Many times the announcement about school closings came after deadlines for parents to apply to magnet, selective enrollment and charter schools, thereby limiting their options.

This year, the deadline to apply for magnet and selective enrollment school is Dec. 14 and letters of acceptances are supposed to be sent out well before March 31. Each charter school has a different application deadline, but many of them are early Spring.

“We control the deadlines,” said Byrd-Bennett. Her team is looking at ways to make sure that students and parents will be able to apply to schools, should they learn their school is to be targeted in late March.

State Sen. Heather Steans said that after talking to Martinez she supports the delay in the announcement of proposed school actions. Martinez told her the commission will be going out to every community and talking to them about school actions.

“I think that if we can get real community input the process is going to work much better,” she said.

She also noted that when school closings are announced, schools often are thrown into turmoil. If the announcement comes later in the school year, students will experience less upheaval, she said.

But Lewis said it is not good for parents, students and teachers to be left scrambling looking for new options so late in the school year. She pointed out that it is not clear how much of a financial benefit the school district will reap by closing schools.

Some districts that have closed schools in the past have not realized big savings. Also, the savings are dependent on the school district closing schools and not opening new ones in their place. In Chicago, the vast majority of schools closed over the past decade currently house new schools, many of them charter schools.

Byrd-Bennett said she doesn’t want to entangle the discussions about closing schools and opening charter schools. “Once we have the building closed, we will look at it and talk about what goes in there,” she said, at a discussion at the Chicago Urban League Friday morning.

Byrd-Bennett said she was once anti-charter schools until she had a chance to tour one in Harlem a few years ago and was impressed. Now, she said she doesn’t care what kind of school it is as long as it is doing well by children.

Lewis said Byrd-Bennett wants to separate the discussions because having them together reveals that the policy doesn’t make any sense. “It is not realistic to say we are closing schools for under-utilization, while at the same time opening new schools,” she said.

The members of the commission are:

  • State Sen. Iris Martinez
  • Frank Clark, former chairman and CEO of ComEd
  • John Hannah, senior pastor of New Life Covenant Church on the South Side
  • Terry Hillard, former Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department
  • Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st Ward on the South Side
  • Fausto Lopez, a former CPS principal
  • Earnest Gates, head of the Near West Side Community Development Commission
  • Shirley Calhoun, assistant parent coordinator of Fiske Elementary School on the South Side
  • Debra Perkins, former CPS teacher