School closure bill still on track, sponsor says

May 11, 2011

By Kristen McQueary and Linda Lutton

A bill that stalled in the House, which would force Chicago Public Schools to plan ahead for school closures and capital expenditures, remains a work in progress, according to the bill's sponsor.

State Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) said Wednesday she won't leave Springfield until the bill passes. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn May 31.

"We have time," she said.

The bill would force Chicago Public Schools to come up with a ten-year facilities master plan and a five-year capital improvement plan that would guide decisions about school closures and improvements in the city.  

The bill is significant because more school closings are expected under new CPS leadership. Interim schools CEO Terry Mazany has said the district must close between 20 and 40 underutilized schools within two years.  By the district’s own reckoning, 100 schools are at 40 percent capacity or less. Others are overcrowded.

The bill grows out of an initial effort two years ago to place a moratorium on school closures in the district, which has shuttered some 90 schools in the last decade.

Parents and community activists have argued that decisions about school closures lack transparency, and that criteria for school openings and closings changes from year to year. They also maintain there are inequities in capital expenditures.

An Illinois General Assembly task force that has been researching CPS facilities decisions found that the district has spent $4.6 billion on capital improvements since 1996. Despite that, 92 schools are in need of serious repairs, the task force found. More than half of capital funds since 2006 went to 67 schools, while 330 schools received nothing, one analyst found.

The bill would require the district to complete an “educational impact statement” before closing a school, outlining the effect the closing would likely have on students.

Soto described the bill as an accountability measure created with the cooperation of Chicago Public Schools that would simply force them to establish and then follow their own policies on school closures. With Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel being sworn in Monday, his education team wanted to take an extra look at the language, Soto said.

"Senate Bill 620 is being negotiated with (Emanuel's) education team," she said. "With the new administration, new education team, we're going to be courteous and let them review the bill."