Independence of independent schools commission questioned

December 18, 2012

Questions are bubbling up about the independence of a panel looking at school closings in Chicago.

The independent Commission on School Utilization was named by Chicago Public Schools’ CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to examine the school closings issue, specifically underutilized schools.

But the commission is being assisted behind the scenes by the Civic Consulting Alliance—a politically connected nonprofit that deploys business consultants to city government.

Frank Clark, head of the independent panel, says the school district invited the consulting firm in. But he says he appreciates the help, and says it should raise no questions of independence.

“Their work is impartial, it has a high degree of accuracy, it doesn’t hurt that it’s pro-bono, and I’ve never detected a bias,” says Clark, who says the consultants are helping the commission gather data that will inform decisions about school closings.

The accusations of bias come from the fact that the Civic Consulting Alliance is closely linked to New Schools for Chicago, a high-powered group that advocates closing failing schools and the expansion of charter schools.

The Civic Consulting Alliance and New Schools for Chicago share a suite on the 43rd floor of the Chase Building. They also share some board members. Phyllis Lockett, the founding president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, sits on the Civic Consulting Alliance’s board and used to be CCA’s executive director. The New Schools for Chicago website says Locket has helped triple the number of charter schools in Chicago.

The connections prompted the Chicago Teachers Union this week to characterize the independent Commission on School Utilization a “front” for charter schools.

Belmont-Cragin preschool teacher Kirstin Roberts says she’s not surprised by connections among the district, the independent commission, politically connected consultants and charter advocates.

“It’s been clear for a long time in this city that there is an alliance—not a conspiracy, because it’s out in the open—an alliance of some of the richest, most powerful people in this city to undo what we’ve worked so hard to build in the public schools,” says Roberts.

Roberts attended a commission hearing Monday evening with fellow teachers; they asked the commission to spare their school from the chopping block.

Clark says the commission will continue to gather input from the public about school utilization and closings. He says commission members will pore over the data collected and issue recommendations to the school district—but not an actual list of schools to close—over the coming 60 days.

Meanwhile, although the school district says 136 of its schools are severely underused, the board of education votes Wednesday on whether to open a handful of new charter schools.