Take 5: Charter news, Laquan’s schools, TIF surplus

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File photo from 2010 of middle school students at one of UNO Charter School Network's Archer Heights campuses.

Photo by Elizabeth Rodriguez

File photo from 2010 of middle school students at one of UNO Charter School Network's Archer Heights campuses.

You may remember that last fall the Illinois State Board of Education won $42.3 million in federal dollars to expand charters and share best practices. It turns out that just three charter organizations filed “intent to apply” forms for the expansion dollars with the state before a Jan. 31 deadline.

Among them: the UNO Network of Charter Schools (now known as UCSN), which hasn’t opened a new school since it broke away from its beleaguered parent, the United Neighborhood Organization, after a corruption scandal triggered by a 2013 Sun-Times investigation.

UCSN and UNO have been fighting over control of the 16 campuses, which serve about 8,000 students. Asked about expansion plans, UCSN spokeswoman Blanca Jara said that, “given our successful academic record as one of the top charter networks in the City of Chicago, we are simply at a discovery stage and exploring all options for potential expansion in the near future.”

(It’s worth noting that any charter operator in Chicago that wants to expand must also seek permission from Chicago Public Schools. Operators have until Feb. 22 to notify the district if they plan to file requests for proposals to open new campuses. It’s unclear how this process would change if CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union settle on a labor contract that includes a cap on charter school growth.)

Intrinsic Schools — which operates one campus in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood and has permission to open a second — also plans to apply for the charter expansion money, according to state documents obtained through a public records request. Intrinsic spokesman Solomon Lieberman said the money would help pay for the opening of the second campus, which needs to find a facility. “Each expansion requires more resources,” he said.

The third group to apply was West 40 Intermediate Service Center #2, in west suburban Hillside, which operates alternative school programs and training programs for teachers. Officials from that group did not respond to a request for comment.

2. While we’re on charters … Public hearings have been set for the three charter schools that appealed the School Board’s decision to close them at the end of the school year due to poor performance. The hearings will be held over the next two weeks at Bronzeville Lighthouse Elementary Charter School, Amandla Charter School in Englewood, and Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s Sizemore Academy in West Englewood. (You can see dates and times on our calendar.) The Illinois State Charter School Commission is reviewing the appeals and must decide the schools’ fate within a month of the hearings.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the state charter commission voted unanimously to deny the only appeal filed after CPS denied some charter proposals back in October. Commissioners said Connected Futures Academies, which wanted to open five alternative charter schools, met criteria for management skills, but fell short in other areas such as academics and finances.

Separately, the commission is looking to fill two vacancies after the resignations of Jaime Guzman, who joined the CPS School Board, and Sylvia Sykes, who was appointed before Gov. Bruce Rauner took office.

3. More on this week’s cuts … CPS released details Wednesday of how charters, contract schools and privately managed alternative schools fared in the district’s budget cuts. Overall, privately run schools are losing about $15.8 million in funds allocated based on enrollment. But district officials estimate the likely impact at closer to $9.5 million, because federal funds will cushion the cuts. Privately run schools have to apply for the federal funds after making changes to their program designs, and the district will review the applications before approving allocations.

As the Sun-Times points out, all privately run schools stand to lose at least some of their budgets, unlike a few dozen district-run schools that are coming out ahead as CPS releases state “carryover” funds that some schools didn’t spend last year. The district doesn’t hold onto state funds for charters and other privately run schools. These schools will see their budget cuts in April, when they receive their final quarterly payment from CPS for the school year.

DNAinfo reports that several district-run schools that saw some of the deeper cuts — namely schools with more affluent students and selective-enrollment schools — won’t have to lay off staff because they can tap into contingency funds and money raised by parents and “friends of” groups. Reporters pointed to Jones College Prep, Ogden International School and Lincoln Park High School as a few examples, though the trend occurred across the North Side.

(Some of these schools were featured in our Spring 2015 issue of Catalyst In Depth, which focused on a select, but growing group of parents at schools in wealthier communities that are raising millions of dollars through private fundraising.)

This isn’t the first time this school year that principals have turned to parents to help offset district cuts. Back in December, Payton College Prep called on parents to raise more than $1 million to help protect against possible future budget reductions. And for a good recap of where each of the key players stands in the ongoing power struggle over the future of CPS, WBEZ’s Becky Vevea produced this story for NPR.

4. Laquan McDonald’s schools … An investigation by Sarah Karp, of the Better Government Association, shows that Laquan McDonald — the 17-year-old who was fatally shot by Chicago police in 2014 — attended some of the district’s lowest-ranking schools while in foster care. During that time he was dealing with various problems, including emotional issues, drugs and gangs.

McDonald was a student at Lathrop Elementary in North Lawndale, which closed in 2012 due to low performance; Hay Community Academy in Austin; and Montefiore Specialty School, which was effectively shuttered last summer and is expected to be formally closed later this month. At the time McDonald attended Hay, it ranked in the district’s lowest tier. While he attended Montefiore, the school had only 21 students.

Bruce Bornstein, a Chicago lawyer who represented McDonald for many Juvenile Court foster care proceedings, said most foster parents live on the South and West sides, where many schools are low-performing and under-resourced. He added that public schools often aren’t “equipped” to handle foster children’s emotional issues.

“There is no way you can come out unscathed… the system lacked the appropriate services to deal with the issues,” Bornstein said.

We’d like to note that Karp — who previously covered education for Catalyst  — will be leaving her post at the BGA next week. She will be joining the education team at WBEZ. We wish her well in her new role.

5. TIF surplus vote … Despite a strong showing of support from parent groups and more than 30 aldermen, the city’s Budget Committee decided Tuesday to postpone a vote on a resolution that would identify and direct unused tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars to CPS. Instead, the resolution was sent to the Finance Committee, which meets next month.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who began the initiative, is asking each alderman to evaluate whether upcoming TIF projects can be tabled to free up money to reduce the district’s budget deficit. Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) has offered to cancel plans for a $1 million baseball field for Clemente Community Academy, while Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) proposed calling off roughly $19 million in projects, including $2 million in work on an outdoor campus at McPherson Elementary.

At a press conference before the meeting, Brenda Delgado of the advocacy group Raise Your Hand also suggested canceling plans to open a new selective-enrollment high school — the one formerly known as Obama College Prep — to save money.

Advocates, who acknowledge that TIF funds would provide only temporary relief, are also calling for long-term sustainable funding. “We know that TIF is not a cure-all,” Ramirez-Rosa said at a second press conference before the committee meeting. “But when there’s $1.38 billion in TIF balance, we’ve got to figure out a way to move as many of those dollars as possible to help our Chicago Public Schools.”

A few last notes…  The city announced an expansion of its free, full-day pre-kindergarten program. Officials say that by the fall of 2017, the program will be available to about 17,000 children from low-income families. But the CTU and some early education advocates say the plan has “major flaws” and they hosted a press conference on this issue Thursday morning.

We’ll take a closer look at how Emanuel’s preschool expansion initiatives are faring in his second term in the coming days — and update our October 2014 analysis on the progress made so far.

And we failed to point out in last week’s Take 5 that CPS officials have instituted a “lifetime ban” on attending selective-enrollment schools for students who committed residency fraud to help their chances of getting in. The decision came weeks after a scathing report from the Inspector General’s Office called for harsher penalties for this type of fraud.