Commission: Closing high schools is too dangerous

January 10, 2013

UPDATE: CPS announced Friday that it will put out a more specific list of schools "still on the table" for closure before the end of the month and will host a community engagement process around those schools.

Two meetings will be held in every network in the month of February so that people can make their case for specific schools.

“We recognize the need for a more granular level of community engagement – it’s something we’ve heard loud and clear as part of the community meetings the Commission on School Utilization has hosted over the last several weeks,” said Byrd-Bennett in a press release. “It is critical that the community has the chance to give us their feedback on individual schools, and we want to provide them with that opportunity.”
CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will produce the new, more finite list of schools based on the recommendations produced by the School Utilization Commission. Byrd-Bennett will decide what recommendations she will accept and consult the board before making the list public, according to the press release.

At the same time, the School Utilization Commission, appointed by Byrd-Bennett, will be holding meetings with Local School Councils and Community Action Councils, which are groups of stakeholders coming up with education plans. The eight-member commission plans to issue more recommendations and a final report after those meetings.

The recommendations call for only relatively-small, mostly low-performing elementary schools would be closed down.

On Thursday, the commission issued an interim report, suggesting, among other things, that Byrd-Bennett not touch high schools.Some 60 high schools are underutilized with about 20 more than half empty. Many of these half-empty schools are in big, old buildings and the cost to maintain and provide needed updates, according to CPS, is more than $265 million.

But commission chairman Frank Clark said members determined that closing down high schools creates too many safety issues. “With the older kids and the gang activity, it becomes a real problem,” he said.

“Threats to student safety by intermixing students from different neighborhoods are greatest for high school students, and the risk of a violent incident would be magnified,” the interim report issued by the commission reads.

Taking high schools off the list is the most far-reaching of the recommendations. Also, elementary schools with more than 600 students were recommended to not be closed. Commission members felt it would take too much to move large numbers of students into a new school, considering how much space they would need.

Schools that have recently experienced a school action would also be spared under the recommendations. However, Clark said commission members were mostly worried about students having to experience more than one closing and they were not necessarily referring to turnarounds, in which most or all of an entire staff has been replaced but students remain at the school.

 The other recommendations are more common sense, with the commission saying that high-performing schools, mid-rated schools where performance is on an upward trajectory or schools that are adding grades should all be spared.

Dozens of schools still could be shut down

According to district estimates, some 330 schools are underutilized. If the recommendations to remove high schools and those with more than 600 students were heeded, at least 180 schools would still be on the list.  (Some of the recommendations are vague, such as sparing schools close to efficient utilization, so it is impossible to come up with a specific list. See Excel file below.)

Clark said that the commission plans to continue holding community meetings and will issue a final report in the next six weeks.

Byrd-Bennett appointed the commission, which includes state lawmakers, a pastor and an alderman, and charged them with engaging the community and coming up with recommendations. The commission originally included a parent, but she couldn't attend meetings and didn't participate.

Byrd-Bennett has not promised to heed all their recommendations.

On Thursday, she issued a statement thanking them for the commission for their work, but not responding to any of their suggestions.

At first, Byrd-Bennett said she wanted the commission to offer up a list of schools they thought should be consolidated with other schools. But as the commission started holding public meetings, Clark announced that it will produce no specific list.

Instead, these recommendations are intended to help Byrd-Bennett narrow the entire list of underutilized schools.

CPS officials say the school district has space for 100,000 more students and must close schools to right-size the district. By shuttering them, they not only save some administrative staff, but they also won’t have to maintain the properties, which is expensive.

“CPS faces a daunting utilization and budget crisis as it faces a $1 billion deficit next fiscal year,” according to a CPS statement released Thursday.

Clark said Thursday he has heard that the district could save about $1 million for each school that it closes, but district officials have previously estimated a savings of $500,000 to $800,000 per school.

Closing schools will allow the district to use “scarce resources” more effectively, according to CPS officials.