School closing logistics on tight timeline

March 8, 2013

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has three weeks before state law dictates that she announce the district’s final school closing recommendations, but time is running out if parents are to get time to weigh their school options before the end of the year.

The state law that dictates the process for closing schools requires 60 days between the time the CEO makes the official recommendations and the decisive vote by the Board of Education. When CPS officials went to Springfield to shift the recommendation back from December to March, they did not request a shorter time period between the announcement and the vote, according to a source familiar with negotiations. 

As a result, the Board of Education vote cannot take place until May.  If Byrd-Bennett waits until the last minute to announce her recommendations, the vote wouldn’t be able to take place until a mere three weeks before summer break.

The May board meeting is set for May 22, although members could decide to hold a special session to take up the issue of school closings.

Parents whose schools are on the recommended school closing list will have one of two choices: Spend the month of April either continuing the fight to save their school, or deciding where they will send their children in the fall. Teachers and staff in schools recommended for closure also will be torn, as they try to figure out where they will be teaching in September.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says that the public hearings and comments required by law between the recommendations and the vote will carry weight.

“These are merely recommendations by the CEO,” she says. “They are not final and won't be final until we’ve completed our next round of engagement with school communities and after the Board of Education has taken a vote.”

However, even before the vote, district officials will be working “proactively” with schools recommended for closure and the designated welcoming schools.  

“There is a team of 40 subject-matter experts working to prepare transition plans for each school and its students before we launch the implementation phase of our transition work so we are prepared to move forward once final decisions are made,” Carroll says. 

The timeline was noted in the final report of the School Utilization Commission, which was released Wednesday evening. The report gave CPS the green light to take action at up to 80 schools, but also lays out steps that commission members believe should be happening between April and June.

District officials should spend the spring advising parents of their options for the coming school year. The commission says assemblies should be held at each school, where district officials “allow parents or other caretakers to both enroll their child at a receiving school and submit applications for selective enrollment, magnet, or out-of-area schools.”

However, this recommendation is somewhat confounding: Acceptance letters for magnet and selective enrollment elementary schools are set to go out the week of March 18. Also, by May, the application and acceptance at most charter schools will have taken place. (Charters that are in less demand, however, often still have space.)

Byrd-Bennett has said that she will make sure that parents have options, but has yet to lay out how this will happen.

District officials seem to be holding off on letting neighborhood schools offer up their extra seats to applicants. Last week, parents were sent a letter saying that open enrollment seats at neighborhood schools won’t be offered until May 19.

The commission suggests that district officials also spend the spring looking at how displaced children will be getting from their homes to new schools and working with the community to figure out safe passage routes.

CPS should work with community members to identify resources, such as the YMCA, that could replace the support offered by the school, the report states.

On top of all this, the commission recommends that CPS hold camps over the summer for all the displaced students at their new school.

Commission chairman Frank Clark says he is convinced that CPS leaders can accomplish these tasks in the short time period they have before the summer. He points out that Byrd-Bennett hired Tom Tyrell, a retired Marine colonel, to handle the closings.

“She has hired new leaders with extraordinary logistics background,” Clark says. “This guy knows what he is doing.