Lawmakers vote to give CPS more time to decide school closings

November 27, 2012

SPRINGFIELD - Despite a last-minute wave of angry opposition, the Illinois House Executive Committee voted unanimously, 11-0, on Tuesday to give the Chicago Public Schools until March 31 to "announce all proposed school actions to be taken at the close of the current academic year," as provided in a House amendment to Senate Bill 547

Under current law, the deadline for that announcement is Saturday, Dec. 1. SB 547, now sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) was moved immediately to a second reading and can be put to a final House floor vote Wednesday. If that passes, and if the Senate concurs with the House amendment, Gov. Pat Quinn will sign the bill into law and the deadline will be extended to March 31.

In approving the amendment, the committee spurned the wishes of a roomful of angry Chicago residents who had traveled to Springfield to oppose what they see as the latest move on the part of the CPS to clear the way for a massive school closure action--some activists fear up to 100 or more schools could be shut down, while CPS insists it does not have a number in mind--by the start of the 2013-2014 school year. The crowd packed the hearing room, standing in the aisles and along the walls.

At one point, Capitol security officers blocked the hearing door, not allowing anyone else to enter until someone already inside the room (with a capacity of maybe 200 people) left and indicated no desire to return.

The task fell to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, who has been in her job just a few weeks, to explain why the deadline extension is needed. The district faces a $1 billion deficit this year, she said, while schools throughout Chicago are "under-utilized."

The district has 500,000 classroom seats for only 400,000 students, she said. About 140 schools have been identified as being at less than 50% occupied. Closing one school would save the district $500,000 to $800,000 per year--not enough, even if all 140 schools were shut down, to make a significant dent in the estimated deficit. 

SB 547 is apparently on the fast track: The House Executive Committee is the committee of choice (as opposed to the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, for example) when a bill has been “greased” by House leadership.

Uproar against CPS

While the crowd listened with only minimal reaction to Byrd-Bennett's explanation, they exploded in uproar when state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), who chairs the committee, began a roll call of the votes of committee members without having called any witnesses in opposition.

From chaotic, uncoordinated shouting, the noise from the audience quickly congealed into a boisterous chant: "No vote! No vote! No vote! Nooooo Voooottteee!"

Burke, a stickler for order and decorum, quickly threatened to "close this hearing" if the crowd did not "discontinue this behavior." Then he asked, "Who is here to oppose this motion?"

Hands were raised throughout the hearing room. Opponents began to move to the aisle leading to the witness table at the front of the room.

In a departure from House committee procedure - unprecedented in recent history - Burke let the Chicago citizens testify against SB 547, one after another, without having signed official witness slips. Eventually, about 15 of them were given two minutes each to have their say.

Most attended in a somewhat official capacity, as members of local school councils, as teachers and as representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union. Some represented community organizations not directly related to the public schools - such as a group that cares about homeless children, for example - and some were just concerned parents.

Generally, opposition was based on arguments that massive school closures planned by CPS will harm the neighborhoods and the children, and that the task is so massive that it cannot be accomplished in a thoughtful way in so little time. "Follow the law. Give it a year and do it right," one woman admonished Byrd-Bennett. Applause erupted in the room.

Another theme that consistently evoked applause was that the CPS board and administration can't be trusted. Many witnesses cited instances in which the district had said one thing and done another. Even Currie had indicated an expectation that distrust would be voiced.

Several opposing witnesses expressed concerns about racial motivations on the part of the district, or that CPS would close schools and cause disruption in poorer neighborhoods while leaving schools in more affluent areas alone.

Responding to a committee member's question, Byrd-Bennett clarified that there will be a list of school closings announced, extension or no extension. Without the amendment, by Saturday CPS will make public a list of schools to be closed by the end of the school year - but it will be a hastily drawn document, one drafted without the benefit of much community input.

Byrd-Bennett noted that she has appointed a CPS school facilities task force for the purpose of holding meetings in all affected neighborhoods to gather input from parents, LSC members and others who would be affected by a school closure. 

The law being amended, however, already provided for a task force--one that has been critical of how CPS handled school actions and has even called for a moratorium on closings

But that group apparently was left out of the loop. A couple of individuals who lined up to testify in opposition to SB 547 identified themselves as members of that task force.

By the end of the day Thursday, the bill will likely have passed the House, the Senate will concur and Gov. Quinn will sign it into law.