Scalding school closing report unlikely to get a hearing

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A scalding report that criticizes CPS for the way it handled the mass closing of schools last year likely will not get a public hearing as requested by state task force members. 

As for why, that’s in dispute. 

State Rep. Linda Chapa La Via, chair of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, said she requested a hearing but has little hope that it will ever be held. “Everything is politics,” she said with a sigh.

However, Steve Brown, House Speaker Mike Madigan’s spokesman, said that Chapa LaVia doesn’t need permission to hold a hearing. He was incredulous as to why she doesn’t just move forward.

Chapa Lavia did not respond when re-contacted. Also, representatives Cynthia Soto and Esther Golar, both of whom sit on the task force, did not respond to calls and emails on the subject.

Members of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force said they are convinced that Madigan’s office—with the encouragement of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—is preventing the hearing. They suspect that Emanuel wants to avoid a discussion on the school closing process during an election year. 

“It was shut down,” said Clarice Berry, a task force member and president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.  “There is tremendous political pressure not to hold a hearing.”

Cecile Carroll, chair of the task force, said she was told the request for a subject matter hearing was denied and was given the impression that it was over Chapa Lavia’s head. 

The final report criticizes CPS on a range of matters, from not announcing the school actions in time for students to apply to magnet or selective enrollment schools to not taking heed of the opinions of Independent hearing officers, some of whom recommended—to no avail—that a school not be closed. 

Mike Rendina, who at the time was CPS’ Chief of Policy, wrote a three-page rebuttal to the final report, accusing task force members of not consulting district officials as they were writing it. He said there are several instances where the report is inaccurate or misleading. 

One point of contention is that the report says CPS has not developed a defined system or policies to evaluate the school actions. Rendina notes in his letter that CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett issued a mid-year preliminary report that looks at attendance and other issues.  The task force report acknowledges Byrd-Bennett’s report, but notes that it is not online for the public to review. 

Catalyst reported that the gains touted by Byrd-Bennett in the mid-year report are minuscule. Catalyst also has asked for a final report now that the school year is over. 

The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force was created after community activists, frustrated by earlier school closings made their case to state lawmakers. Based on the task force’s recommendations, state lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 that established a process for school actions as well as forced CPS to come up with a master facilities plan. Newly in office, Emanuel grudgingly supported the bill after getting a provision removed that would have allowed the task force to override school actions.

Ever since, the task force has been responsible for monitoring CPS’ implementation of the bill, and task force members have often grilled CPS officials. They also have drawn a lot of information out of CPS that had not been made public. Rendina, now in the mayor’s office, attended most of the meetings. 

What the task force’s next step is unclear, Berry said that even without a hearing, she is hopeful the task force’s report will send a lasting message.  “I am hoping to never see this kind of mass closings again,” she said. “It does not serve the children well.”