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After this year, Chicago schools could be safe from closure for 5 years

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says after this year, there will be no school closings for five years.

The announcement comes with direction from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and at the same time school officials are requesting an extension to the state-mandated Dec. 1 deadline for announcing school closures.

But a five-year moratorium after this year may only serve to soften the blow that could be large-scale school closings at the end of this school year. Rumors have been swirling for months that dozens of schools will be shut down—anywhere between 80 and 120.

But members of a commission appointed by Byrd-Bennett to analyze school enrollment, building use and to gather community feedback say that’s not the case.

Frank Clark, the former CEO of ComEd, sits on that commission and said repeatedly at a meeting Monday that “there is no list of schools” slated for closure.

Byrd-Bennett appointed that nine-member panel earlier this month. The commission is supposed to make recommendations to her by next spring, but Byrd-Bennett will have the final say. Emanuel also issued a statement in support of the plan this afternoon, saying Byrd-Bennett and her commision on school utilization intend that "Chicagoans will be involved in the conversation about any changes to our district this year...." 

Clark said the Commission on School Utilization will hold five public meetings across the city in the coming weeks and also will try to come up with a list of criteria they plan to use to determine if a school should be closed.

The five-year moratorium starting next school year hinges on state lawmakers giving Byrd-Bennett and the commission the extra time they’re requesting. If lawmakers do not grant CPS a waiver, the moratorium would likely not happen.

State Sen. Iris Martinez and State Rep. Cynthia Soto have introduced legislation for this week’s veto session that would give CPS until March 31st to announce this year’s planned closures. Martinez and Soto championed the 2010 school facilities law that established the Dec. 1 deadline.

If a waiver is granted and a moratorium takes effect down the road, it would only apply to closures and consolidations, not other kinds of school shakeups, like turnarounds. Last month, Juan Rangel, the head of the UNO charter school network, said CPS had been asking charter school operators if they would be willing to do turnarounds or some other kind of neighborhood school takeover.

It is unclear where charter school fit into the moratorium and CPS officials have been adamant that school closures are not related to charter expansion.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis issued a statement Monday pushing the district to address the charter school question: “How can the district cry ‘under-utilization’ as a justification for school closings while it simultaneously approves the opening of new charter campuses?” she said.

The union wants the district to call a moratorium on school closings this year and have an independent study done to address the cost savings of school closings. School officials say they could save up to $800,000 for every school that is closed, but it is not clear if that includes the costs of demolition or mothballing buildings while they’re up for sale.

At the commission meeting Monday, Frank Clark said school closures are not driven by the budget, but do have budget implications.  

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