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Byrd-Bennett says CPS will release list of schools 'still on the table'

(Updated: 2 p.m. on 1/11/13)

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said Friday the district would release a list of schools “still on the table” before the end of the month.

From there, CPS leaders plan to hold at least 28 meetings throughout the city, two for each geographic cluster of schools, in order to get more specific feedback from the community on individual schools. Dates and times of the meetings are still being determined, but they are scheduled to begin on January 28.

“We recognize the need for a more granular level of community engagement,” Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. She also said she will decide whether CPS will follow the criteria recommended by the commission Thursday. School spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district could accept, reject or tweak the commission’s guidelines.

The group tasked with helping Chicago Public Schools figure out which schools to close at the end of the school year put forward a list of criteria they think district leaders should use.

The CPS-appointed group, formally titled as the Commission on School Utilization, said high schools, schools with more than 600 students and schools labeled high-performing should be spared.

The commission also suggested that CPS avoid closing schools that were recently turned around or accepted students from a closed school in recent years.

Commission Chair Frank Clark said they came up with the criteria based on six public meetings held in November and December. 

"I think it’s been clear to people over the course of these meetings that we really are listening to them," Clark said. "I think this report reflects that."

But there’s no guarantee CPS leaders will follow the commission’s criteria and at the end of the day district staff will come up with the final list of closures, not the commission.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett released a statement saying she plans give the report a "thoughtful review over the next few days."

When applying the criteria recommended by the commission, anywhere from 100 to 175 schools could still be eligible for closure. Some of the proposed criteria are vague, therefore a range is provided.

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis responded to the report, calling the under enrollment problem and need to close schools a "manufactured" crisis. District leaders have used census numbers from the last 10 years to explain why there were 100,000 “empty seats” across the district. A WBEZ analysis of actual public school enrollment showed school enrollment declined by about 30,000 students in the same period.

"What is clear to us after reading the commission’s recommendations is that the public deserves a full facilities plan with a complete vision of where CPS is headed," Lewis said.

Byrd-Bennett appointed the commission and asked the state legislature for an extension on the deadline for announcing school closures in order to allow for more public input.

But throughout the course of the public meetings in November and December, it became clear that the public did not trust the commission had the power to make any decisions.

That got more complicated when WBEZ and other media outlets reported ties between the commission and a group called the Civic Consulting Alliance—a politically connected nonprofit that deploys business consultants to city government.  

The Civic Consulting Alliance has close ties to New Schools for Chicago—a group that advocates for the growth and expansion of privately-run charter schools. When asked by a reporter Wednesday if the Civic Consulting Alliance wrote or helped with the analysis and writing of the report, Clark fumbled with his answer.

"“They don’t guide us," Clark said. "They did what any staff does for any commission. They helped with the drafting. They help with the notes. But every world of this document is the consensus of the commission itself. No one directed us what to say."

The reporter asked for clarification and Clark continued, "Look, I didn’t say they didn’t help with the analysis,” he continued after the reporter asked for clarification. "You’re question is, ‘Did they write a report and we signed off on it?’ And the answer is ‘no.’"

The report also includes a section of recommendations that the commission acknowledges as outside what they were asked to study. They suggested the district also look at the utilization of charter schools, develop a plan for the 61 elementary schools deemed "overcrowded," and to not close schools that "are on the rise," meaning ones that are improving academically.

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