Community groups: Inspector General should investigate closings

February 12, 2013

A coalition of parent and community groups called on outside help Tuesday to try to put the brakes on massive school closings, which they fear even large, well-organized opposition won’t be able to stop.

In a complaint to the CPS Inspector General and cc’d to the Illinois Attorney General, Parents 4 Teachers (a group that CPS says has been organized by the Chicago Teachers Union, which is adamantly opposed to closings) charged that the school closing process is wrought with “employee misconduct,” conflicts of interest and misinformation.

“We want CPS to be held [accountable by] an independent body, to shine a light on what is going on,” said Erica Clark, a member of the coalition. It is unclear whether the Inspector General would launch an investigation.

CPS has said that school closings are necessary because the district “has too many empty classrooms and too few students to fill them,” spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said in a statement.  “This is stretching our limited resources too thin and depriving children of critical investments such as air conditioning, playgrounds, technology and computers, library, art and music.” Closing schools would give the district more resources to provide a better education at the remaining schools, CPS says.

The complaint charges that CPS is closing traditional neighborhood schools in order to privatize public education by expanding charter schools. “We have come to the conclusion that it is the motive,” Clark said.

At a press conference on Tuesday, parents and community activists from several organizations stood together to announce the filing of the complaint. Clark pointed out that many came from schools that are not in danger of being closed. “Everyone understands that what everyone wants is a good neighborhood school,” she said.

CPS recently approved four charters, but CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has sought to separate the two issues. She promised that this year, unlike previous years, vacant CPS buildings would not be converted to charter schools.

Nationally, a new Pew Charitable Trust study found that about 40 percent of closed schools in 12 cities were later converted to charters

On Wednesday, Byrd-Bennett is expected to release a more finite list of schools she is looking at closing. Her final recommendations must be published by March 31, after which official public hearings will be held. Then, at the April Board of Education meeting, members will vote on Byrd-Bennett’s recommendations.

Suspicions of political, charter ties

CPS has embarked on a community engagement process that entails meetings held by the district’s hand-picked School Utilization Commission; 28 more will be conducted by CPS. At meetings already held, hundreds, and sometimes close to a thousand, parents and community activists have shown up to voice their opposition to closing neighborhood schools. Meetings have been moved to bigger venues and CPS officials have in some cases abandoned their agenda so that everyone could speak.

Some activists are suspicious of the School Utilization Commission because it is staffed by the Civic Consulting Alliance, a politically-connected group that brings business expertise to government and is housed in the same office as New Schools for Chicago, which provides start-up funds for charter schools and has some of the same board members as the Alliance.

Also, CPS got a $478,000 grant from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation to undertake the community engagement process—a move that CPS is quick to note was meant to save costs.

According to Ziegler, the Walton grant “allowed CPS to avoid using any taxpayer dollars in order to engage parents in this conversation at the front end of this process and allow them to have a voice in the critical decisions that need to be made to address this crisis.” 

The complaint also makes note of the district’s school utilization formula, which has come under fire from schools and parents. In the fall, Raise Your Hand, a parent organization, came out with a study that claimed the district’s utilization formula is inaccurate and exaggerates the number of empty schools.

According to CPS, some 330 schools are underutilized and about 140 are half empty.

The complaint says that Byrd-Bennett and School Utilization Commission Chairman Frank Clark have acknowledged that the CPS formula is faulty. “At recent CPS public hearings, district personnel have distributed charts, by network area, reporting the utilization rates of each school based on the original, unchanged CPS formula, which the CEO noted was flawed nearly three months ago,” according to the complaint.

At the community meetings, CPS officials emphasize that CPS is facing a projected $1 billion budget deficit, implying that the shortfall is the reason schools must be closed. Yet, the complaint says that an internal memo proves that district officials know that cost savings could be minimal, if any. Another national Pew study found minimal savings for closing schools.