Take 5: Borrowing delay, Little Village victory, youth unemployment

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Little Village parents who protested a proposal to co-locate schools in their neighborhood spoke up at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting. District officials have agreed to postpone the proposal.

Photo by Max Herman

Little Village parents who protested a proposal to co-locate schools in their neighborhood spoke up at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting. District officials have agreed to postpone the proposal.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool told the Board of Education Wednesday that the district is still “grappling” with a difficult financial situation after last week’s layoffs of more than 200 Central Office staffers. But he made no mention of a decision to delay an $875-million bond sale, which would be used to help the district cover operating costs. City and district officials told reporters Wednesday they had postponed the sale to give investors more time to look it over and were “optimistic” it would go through in the coming days.

But some analysts believe the delay is linked to uncertainty about the district’s financial standing, which hasn’t been helped by recent talks of a potential state takeover or bankruptcy filing. “Either there were no buyers or there were no buyers at a price that the city was going to take. Either way, it’s a bad sign for CPS,” one analyst told the Sun-Times. If and when it goes through, the deal would be a rare one. The Tribune notes: “No state or local government in the continental U.S. has done such a large deal while possessing such a low debt rating in at least the past decade.”

The Tribune also reported that while the district has just enough cash to get through the school year without program cuts, CPS officials again plan to rely on help from the state and concessions from the Chicago Teachers Union to close a hole in next school year’s budget. Insiders say daily contract talks with the CTU have led to agreements on some issues, such as a reduction in testing, but there has been less movement on major economic terms.

Wednesday marked the first meeting for Board member Jaime Guzman, a former CPS teacher and administrator who was elected as the board’s vice president. He barely said a word during the meeting, except to ask a question about student feedback on the district’s meals program. The question came up in reference to a vote to extend the district’s contract with Aramark through the end of the 2016-17 school year.

The head of the district’s nutrition support services, Leslie Fowler, says CPS has conducted student surveys and tastings and met with students from a dozen schools to address questions raised by a lunch boycott led by Roosevelt High School students late last year. While health regulations prohibit the use of too much salt, she said, the district is looking to add other “flavor profiles,” such as cilantro and garlic, to make the food taste better.

There also appears to be some movement on changes to the district’s promotion policy. Catalyst reported in the fall that CPS officials were considering an overhaul of the current policy, by either limiting the use of retention for elementary school students or eliminating it. Asked about the issue at the Board meeting, Janice Jackson, the chief education officer, said the district plans to address the policy later this spring.

2. Postponed plan for Little Village … Teachers, parents and community members claimed a victory this week when CPS officials pulled a controversial plan to move the high school grades of Spry Community School into a building across the street that houses Saucedo and Telpochcalli elementary schools.

The decision came less than a week after activists at the school staged an hours-long sit-in to protest the district’s plan, which had come as a surprise to many when it was unveiled in December. Several parents were also surprised by the reversal. “I didn’t believe it when people called and said we got what we asked for,” said Saucedo parent Zerlina Smith during Wednesday’s Board meeting. “I wanted to cry.”

District officials say they will hold monthly community meetings to develop a new plan for the schools but have not yet established a timeline. Activists asked the district to do a better job communicating with the community about the issue. Few parents knew a hearing scheduled for Wednesday night about the proposal had been cancelled, one activist said, and notices weren’t translated for Spanish-speaking parents.

The Little Village proposal was among a half-dozen “school actions” that were supposed to be aired at a public hearing this week. So far, the other hearings have been sparsely attended. On Monday, one person spoke in support of a proposal to merge three small struggling Austin high schools and eliminate the attendance boundaries of nearby Douglass High School. A hearing on closing the Marine Leadership Academy, which already has ceased operating, also took place that night.

Last night, an attorney from the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago called for “transparency and meaningful community engagement” over the proposal to shutter the Montefiore Specialty School, which was emptied of students and teachers last summer. She was the only speaker at the hearing.

The final hearings take place tonight. One is on a proposal to consolidate Dodge Academy into Morton School of Excellence, two elementary schools that are run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) and are housed in the same building. The second hearing is to allow a newly approved KIPP charter elementary school to move into the building that houses Orr High School, another AUSL school.

The School Board will vote on the proposals in February. See transition plans, meeting summaries and other documents related to the proposed school actions here.

3. Excluded from PARCC tests … An analysis by the Tribune shows that statewide, hundreds of students were left out of state testing last year, as districts struggled to implement the new testing system.

Now, students take state exams only if they’re in particular courses, not because they’re in a certain grade, the Tribune’s Diane Rado reports.

In this first round of PARCC testing, students who were not tested included those working to master English, in special education or taking remedial, gifted and honors classes. In the past, English-language learners and most special-education students were required to sit for regular state exams, and schools were held responsible for their performance.

The Tribune findings raise “questions about how those ineligible kids affected overall test performance at schools, and when those students will be given state exams,” Rado notes.

It’s not clear exactly how many high schoolers didn’t take the PARCC because they weren’t in courses that aligned to the test, the Tribune reports, as the state does not track that statistic. But by comparing enrollment data and the number of students eligible to test at nearly 300 high schools, the newspaper found differences at dozens of schools.

The Tribune story does not specify how many CPS students were left out of the PARCC. But state data show that only 19,862 students took the 9th-grade English language portion of the test, even though there were 30,366 freshmen in CPS at the start of last school year. While many of the missing students opted out of the test altogether, it appears a significant portion were left out — including many who were likely in remedial programs or the district’s growing number of privately operated alternative schools.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bruce Rauner made a comment Wednesday in his State of the State address that raised some questions about how PARCC will be used in the future. He said the state should “develop a comprehensive, consistent, objective student growth measure… so we can track our students’ progress in each grade toward college or career.” But that metric would “not necessarily” be tied to PARCC. The governor’s office didn’t provide additional details, the Daily Herald reports.

4. No jobs for young black men … A new report from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute revealed startling unemployment numbers for black youth in Chicago. About 41 percent of 20- to 24-year-old black youth were unemployed and out of school in 2014. In comparison, roughly 19 percent of Latino and 7 percent of white young people fell into that category.

Young black males were the worst off: 46 percent weren’t working or attending school in 2014. The state rate was 44 percent, and the national rate was 32 percent.

Jobless rates were highest on the city’s South and West sides.

“The new data that’s being presented draws a straight line between the unemployment crisis for youth and the escalating violence in Chicago’s hardest hit neighborhoods,” said Jack Wuest, executive director for the Alternative Schools Network, which commissioned the report.

5. Legislative update … Some Democrats in the state Legislature are filing a bill to compel Chicago to use its untapped tax-increment financing (TIF) money to help CPS get through the year. They say the TIF money — estimated at $150 million to $350 million — could “go toward helping CPS plug its $480 million budget hole,” the Sun-Times reports.

Meanwhile Senate President John Cullerton spent much of a City Club talk this week discussing the need to overhaul the state’s funding formula for schools. “Why should a high schooler in Elgin get a $12,000-a-year education, whereas 20 miles away, a high schooler in Niles (Township) gets a $22,000 education?” he asked, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business.

In response to Cullerton’s statements, Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said that, as a suburban legislator, he is “open to working with the Democrats to fix our archaic school funding formula. At the same time, I hope this means the Democratic leadership is now ready to work with us on other structural reforms to put Illinoisans back to work and to bring the budget impasse to a close.”

Durkin is among a group of Republican lawmakers who announced draft legislation to allow the state to takeover CPS and CPS to file for bankruptcy. Crain’s has a follow-up story on the takeover plan, including a link to the bill.

A few last notes … CPS officials are demanding $10 million from Barbara Byrd-Bennett, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The district’s request is grounded in a state law that lets government agencies seek triple the amount of what criminals were paid. That would include Byrd-Bennett’s three-year salary, benefits and kickbacks she was promised through SUPES contracts.

Meanwhile, a status hearing for SUPES co-defendants Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas took place this morning. Attorneys for both defendants said they were having issues related to restitution with CPS. Their next hearing is scheduled for March 23, and Judge Edmond Chang said that if the defendants are not ready to submit pleas at that point he will set a trial date. Separately, Byrd-Bennett’s own hearing was also pushed back to March, which ABC-7 reports is due to her ongoing cooperation with federal authorities.

Former Illinois State Board of Education chairman Gery Chico violated a conflict of interest policy while he was head of that board, according to a report from the Governor’s Office of Executive Inspector General. Chico’s wife Sunny is president of SPC Educational Solutions — also known as SPC Consulting — and the firm has received about $1.26 million in contracts from CPS, primarily for providing supplemental educational services to charter and AUSL schools from 2011 to 2014. Chico didn’t notify ISBE of his wife’s connection before participating in discussions about funding for these services.

The Sun-Times has a story on a state legislative race that involves one of the first graduates from the original Noble Street charter campus. Angelica Alfaro, now a part-time Noble employee, is running in the Democratic primary for a seat being vacated by state Sen. Willie Delgado. Alfaro has the backing of many of Noble’s biggest donors and major groups that support charters. This will be a race to watch, as Alfaro represents a new constituency in Chicago: young professionals who were educated in the CPS charter system and now want a voice in education policy.

On that note, a heads-up about the next issue of Catalyst in Depth, which will be published early next month. It’s all about the rise of Noble.