School leaders say leaked school closing list not part of current plan

December 19, 2012

The head of Chicago Public Schools is adamant that there is no plan or list of schools slated to be shut down next year, but public mistrust is not waning.

It was clear at Wednesday’s monthly Board of Education meeting that news about an internal CPS memo leaked to the Chicago Tribune has exacerbated the problem.  

The memo outlined plans to shut down 95 schools across the city and shake up another 25 by firing all the staff or phasing out grade by grade until no students are left.

Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett immediately went on the defensive, denying such a plan is in use.

“I need to reiterate to this board of education that there is no list of schools to be closed,” Byrd-Bennett said. “I don’t care what is being floated around and I’m not sure what is being floated around. We wanted our community engaged at the front end of the process, therefore, whatever plans have been floated are nullified.”

But parents and teachers weren’t convinced.

That’s because the leak comes at a time when trust between school officials and the public is at an all-time low.

Kristine Mayle, financial secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union, gave a personal example of why that is.

“The first time I was personally misled by the board of education was when Arne Duncan told my school, my principal that my school would not be closed,” she said. “Later that year it was.”

Mayle also brought up a WBEZ report that showed that the district overstated the number of students it lost in the last decade by using census data, rather than their own enrollment figures. She also noted recent questions about the independence of the group appointed to make school closing recommendations.

“How can the public trust this board of education when they’ve been systematically misrepresenting information for the past year?” Mayle said.

Even CPS board member Andrea Zopp called on CPS leaders to be clear with their plans.

“At some point, CPS has to have a view,” Zopp said. “And my perspective is, we ought to be sharing that view with the public and allowing them to provide some fair commentary about where we’re headed.”

Zopp also raised questions about the district’s plan to open more than a dozen new schools next year. Eleven had already been approved and six more were okayed by the Board on Wednesday.

As the head of new schools, Carly Bolger outlined the district’s recommendations. Zopp repeatedly asked for specifics about where the new schools would be located.

“As I sit on the board to vote to approve this school when we, CPS, can’t say where it’s going, while we conduct a review of utilization, how am I supposed to vote?” Zopp asked.

Zopp repeatedly questioned Bolger and said she wants to be sure the schools are opening in neighborhoods where there’s a need—not areas that are already under enrolled. 

Byrd-Bennett pulled two of the four charter schools up for approval but when asked why CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll did not provide specifics, but instead said Byrd-Bennett “wanted to do a gut check” on the proposals for The Orange School and Foundations College Prep, Carroll did not respond to a request to speak directly with Byrd-Bennett about her reasoning.

In addition to approving new schools, the Board also appointed five new cabinet level positions. They are: Chief of Teaching and Learning, Annette Gurley; Chief Accountability Officer John Barker; Chief of Innovation and Incubation, Jack Elsey; and Chief Officer of Strategic School Support, Tracy Martin-Thompson; Chief Officer of Networks, Denise Little.

Gurley is a former CPS principal and network chief and will take over the top position on education issues, which used to be called the Chief Education Officer. Gurley will make $175,000 a year. CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler denied Gurley’s appointment to that position last week and did not respond to question about the new name until today.

Little is also a former CPS principal and network chief. Barker is coming from Memphis Public Schools and will make $175,000 a year, while Elsey, who will earn $165,000 a year, and Martin-Thompson, who will make $170,000 a year, are being brought from Detroit Public Schools, where Byrd-Bennett previously served.

The new appointments are part of a larger reorganization and are mostly renaming of existing departments. Innovation and Incubation will take over what used to be the Office of Portfolio and the Office of Strategic School Support is absorbing what used to be the Office of School Improvement. There is not a flow chart available yet, Ziegler said.