School board approves $363 million spending package for system restructuring

Busy meeting draws angry protesters from both sides of CPS closings debate.

April 25, 2013

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)
Asean Johnson spoke passionately about keeping his school, Garvey Elementary, open next year.

The Chicago Board of Education approved a $363 million spending package Wednesday that will help pay for Chicago Public Schools massive restructuring plan.

CPS wants to close 54 schools—the most any school district has ever taken on in a single year. In all, the plan will affect 132 schools and each action will be voted on by the school board on May 22.  

Initially, district officials said the move was necessary to address CPS’s ballooning deficit. But any savings won’t come for several years because the district plans to go further into debt in order to fix up the receiving schools and others that need upgrades.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she wants classrooms at the remaining schools to “pop,” so that students want to come to school.

But when Garvey third grader Asean Johnson stepped up to the microphone, barely able to peer  over the podium, he rattled off a list of the things his elementary school already has—a “well-stocked library, an award-winning garden,” an art room, a computer lab and several science labs.

“These are things you say that you want all schools to have but intentionally left these facts out of the fact sheet given to the parents in the community,” Johnson said. “Why would you take Marcus Garvey away from us?”

Garvey elementary is slated to close and students will be sent to nearby Mount Vernon—a move parents, teachers, and even the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board say is questionable.  

Board members became slightly more outspoken on the closings issue during Wednesday’s meeting. Mahalia Hines, a former principal and current board member, pressed CPS officials on what specifically they would be doing to help students with special needs.

Hines raised concerns about the utilization formula not accounting for special education programs and told district officials they would need to review the safety plans at some of the schools. She said she took a few of the routes from closing to receiving schools and was shocked.

“That’s not a route I’d send my child,” she said, referring to the walk from Melody to Delano Elementary. “They are going to have to come back with some better options that that… There is no way, no way, I would send my child (on that walk). And I’m not voting for anything I wouldn’t vote for for my child. OK?”

It was clear that board members have been visiting the schools on the list of closures. At one point, board president David Vitale thanked a woman from Henson Elementary for showing him around the school last week. Henson is slated to close and students will move to Langston Hughes Elementary.

‘Community engagement’ shorter for some

For months, parents, teachers and other community activists have been fighting to pull their schools off the chopping block. CPS is on its fourth round of community engagement and many of the same faces came out again Wednesday for a final push. Formal public hearings end next week.

But for some groups, this latest round of public forums is the first chance they’ve had to speak out. That’s because a number of schools affected by the restructuring were not on any of the previous lists of schools eligible for closure.

Courtenay Elementary is one of them. A small school with lottery admissions on the North Side, it is slated to merge with nearby Stockton Elementary and move into the Stockton building. Courtenay parents are upset not only that the basic structure of the school will change into a large, comprehensive neighborhood school, but also because they didn’t see the proposal coming.

“I strongly oppose the merger of Courtenay and Stockton,” said Mila Cohen, whose daughter is in Courtenay’s special education program. “The mayor says the time for negotiation is over. This is insulting because there was no negotiation. There was no notice. No dialog and certainly, no transparency. Courtenay was never on any action lists and why should it be?”

Cohen said the only reason the school is not Level 1, the highest performance rating CPS gives, is because there wasn’t significant growth above the school’s already high scores. “By this logic, CPS would downgrade Harvard for not improving every year too.”

Dueling Protests

There is a sharp divide in the debate over school closings and improving the school system and the scene outside CPS headquarters before the meeting started Wednesday illustrated the tensions.

Outside, students, many of them juniors who were boycotting the second day of state testing, chanted “Education is our right, we won’t go without a fight!” while indoors, a large group of parents from UNO, Noble and Chicago International charter schools chanted, “Padres unidos, jamas de a vencidos!” (Translation: The parents united, will never be defeated!)

The groups had starkly different messages. The students said they want CPS to stop using their standardized tests to justify shutting down schools. While, the parents argued that the performance, mostly measured by standardized tests, is reason that CPS should open more charter schools.

The charter parents, decked out in T-shirts and bright yellow stickers, are part of a new group called Charter Parents United, or CPU. A press release about the group ASGK Public Strategies, a firm founded by David Axelrod, says the group formed to “voice the concerns of one group whose views have been missing from the recent debate about fixing Chicago Public Schools.”

CPU also argued that charter schools should be funded equally. But in the district’s most recent budget cycle, CPS touted the fact that charter schools got equitable funding as a result of the Gates Foundation’s District-Charter Compact. In all, charters got a $76 million increase in funding from CPS this year.

But parents protesting with CPU didn’t agree and continued to argue that the schools were not funded fairly. Yeni Jiminez has four children, two at UNO-Carlos Fuentes, one at Noble-Golder College Prep and another in college.

When asked by a reporter what programs she felt were missing from her children’s schools, Jiminez said, “I have to go right now, but I do believe that children definitely deserve equal funding.”

‘NO’ votes

School board members rarely vote against any of the district’s proposals, but yesterday, Mahalia Hines and Carlos Azcoitia voted ‘no’ to expanding some of the city’s charter schools.

Both voted down a proposal to add seats to Chicago Virtual Charter School. The resolution ultimately passed 4 to 2. After the meeting, Hines said she’s not against the school, or any school, but doesn’t think it’s wise to expand at a time when the district is trying to “right-size” itself.

Azcoitia also voted against adding a KIPP charter school in Englewood and the expansion of KIPP’s ACT campus.

The measures ultimately passed, and next year several new schools are set to open.The board also approved a high school expansion for UNO-Rogers Park, despite a state investigation into the network’s finances.

CPS plans to open about a dozen new schools next year.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.