School closing decisions may be delayed until spring

New CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett wants a waiver from state law's Dec. 1 deadline

November 5, 2012

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(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)
CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett shakes hands with community leaders after announcing plans to delay an announcement about school closings.

Chicago Public Schools officials plan to close schools again this year, but they don’t want to rush.

Newly seated CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the district is requesting a waiver from the Dec. 1 deadline for announcing school closures set out in state law.

Instead, they want to push off any announcement around closures until March 31.

“This extension will enable me, my team, the Board of Education, to do the work that we need to do up front with community,” Byrd-Bennett said.

But union leaders and community groups want the district to just put off any closings until next year.

“It’s a very big city, with 400 schools and huge diversity,” said Joanna Brown, a member of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “I think it’s going to be a really hard job to really get the kind of community input they’re looking for.”

Brown said she supports the effort to build trust, but thinks it will take more than four months.

This year CPS said it is not planning to use academic performance when deciding to close a school, like it had in the past. Instead, they will look almost exclusively at whether a school is enrolled to its capacity.

Teachers union president Karen Lewis called on the board to open up the books before closing and consolidating schools.

“Closing schools does not save the board as much money as they’d like to say it does, so the first thing I think it would be nice to see a real financial plan about it,” she said.

Byrd-Bennett said a moratorium is out of the question because she could be facing a $1 billion deficit in the next fiscal year.

But school officials have not yet said how much money they could save by closing schools, but several observers say it won’t be much.

That’s because it still costs some money to maintain a vacant building and it still costs money to educate the kids who are moved to another building.

CPS officials instead have talked about consolidations in terms of resources. For example, if two schools within several blocks of one another are both half empty and neither has enough in the budget to pay for a full-time nurse, they could consolidate, pool resources and hire a nurse.

But it’s not that simple when it comes to schools.

“Granted you may be living your one-self in a five-bedroom house and then four people live in a three bedroom, the only problem with that is if you’re a Montague and they’re Capulets, it’s not like you all could just move in together,” Lewis said, alluding to Chicago’s many gang boundaries.

Safety and gang territory is an annual concern during the school closing process and some have said CPS has not followed through with school transition plans.

But those community-sensitive issues are something Byrd-Bennett said she wants to tackle with the help of a new “independent commission,” responsible for studying school utilization and engaging communities in the decision making process. But how the new nine-person commission will operate and how often they will hold meetings is unclear. A CPS spokeswoman said they will not be subject to the Open Meetings Act, meaning they could hold private meetings at times.