'Zero trust' for CPS after savings from closing schools overstated | WBEZ
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'Zero trust' after CPS admits it overstated savings from closing schools

One of the reasons Chicago says it needs to close 54 schools is to save money. If the school district doesn’t have to fix a leaky roof on one school, it can spend the savings on a library at another school. But the amount Chicago Public Schools says it’s going to save by closing down schools is being challenged by parents, school staff and aldermen across the city. And CPS itself recently admitted to overstating how much it would save from closing schools.

WBEZ’s Linda Lutton has been looking into claims that estimated savings from closing school buildings are inflated. She brings us this story, which was reported with Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago Magazine. Read the Catalyst story here.

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In late March, 14,000 kids across Chicago brought home letters saying their schools were being closed, the reasons for shutting each school spelled out…

BURKE: Stuck in the backpack. ‘We’re closing Trumbull and this is why….’

That’s parent Ali Burke. She’s standing outside four-story Trumbull Elementary in Edgewater, a 100-year-old school building that dominates the corner of Foster and Ashland. Parent James Morgan is there too.

MORGAN: So this is what was sent home: Trumbull Elementary. Why CPS recommends to close this school: Enrollment has declined by 33 percent over the last 10 years, and building requires $16.3 million to maintain and update.

LUTTON: And that’s what you looked at and said…?

BURKE: There’s no way. There’s just no way. I mean, I was in shock. I mean, come on. Because $16 million—it’s not accurate! I’m telling you, I’ve been in this school—every day! It doesn’t need $16 million dollars worth of improvements.

Parents are incredulous for a reason: A 2010 assessment found Trumbull needed $4.9 million in repairs and upgrades. The assessment was itemized, three pages.  The new $16 million figure is more than three times higher. There's no new assessment, nothing in writing.

And at many of the 54 schools slated for closure, there’s a similar pattern. Parents, teachers, principals—even aldermen—say CPS is inflating what it would cost to repair or update their closing schools. The higher those costs, the more CPS can say it saves by shutting them down and avoiding those repairs.

RILEY: We are looking at pretty much brand new banisters that were put in last year. The roof was put in last year. Freshly painted… all this is new… you can come in my room for a second, look at the smart boards.

At Paderewski Elementary on the West Side, teacher April Riley gives me a tour of the latest building improvements. Five years ago, this school needed $3 million worth of work. The school district did some of that. In March, the school closing letter CPS sent home said nearly $7 million more was needed.

RILEY: So how is the number twice what it was in 2008? I don’t know where they got the number from.

WBEZ and Catalyst have been asking a lot of questions about just that, about why schools were being assigned such high repair costs, about how the district arrived at the $560 million total it said it would save by closing schools. Then, last week, CPS lowered that estimate. Lowered it by $122 million, about 20 percent.

School officials explained: their numbers changed because they had new building assessments, long itemized lists of needed improvements. But it turns out that just six closing schools have received the new assessments. For the rest of the closing schools, CPS rejiggered old assessments, adding in costs for inflation, construction management, and a contingency.

Board president David Vitale said he is not really bothered by shifting estimates of how much the district will save by closing schools.

VITALE: Not so much. Because you know we’re not going to be making a decision until May (22). And I’m sure we will ask what these numbers look like in their final form. But from my standpoint, whether it’s $400 million or $600 million isn’t going to be the key decision variable for whether the school needs to close.

Vitale says he’ll be looking at each school individually. He says he'll consider potential savings from layoffs too. And he’s keeping his eye on the big picture—the district’s belief that consolidating schools will give kids a better education.

One top CPS official said it doesn’t make sense to quibble over what the total cost savings might be. He said it’s “intuitive” that the district will save money by closing schools. 

Not everyone sees it that way.

LEAVY: The presumption has been, 'Of course we’ll save money!' They already have a couple dozen buildings that are vacant that they haven’t been able to sell.

Jackie Leavy works with a General Assembly task force that reviews CPS facility decisions. She thinks it’s possible not a penny could be saved from some school closures. There’s still a cost to owning a closed school, Leavy says. There’s a cost to mothball it, to put it on the market, keep it heated and graffiti-free. And if that neighborhood needs another school in the futre?

LEAVY: I mean, keep in mind to build a new elementary school today costs anywhere from $60 to $75 million.

There’s a more fundamental question about cost savings from closing schools. Namely: would CPS ever make all the repairs schools need anyway? And is it fair to say the public “saved” money on improvements the district was never going to get around to? Here’s an example: at one point CPS budgeted in the cost of central air conditioning for all the closing schools. No one thinks that improvement was ever going to happen. Still, it was counted in the savings we’d get from closing schools.

Alderman Ricardo Muñoz says the whole thing reminds him of his college statistics class.

MUNOZ: It’s obvious that the Board of Education here is playing with the numbers to their advantage, saying that they’ll be saving millions and millions and millions of dollars. There’s no real rhyme or reason as to how they’re gonna be saving this much money.

Back at Trumbull, the $16 million that CPS originally told parents it would cost to fix up their school got revised—down to $11 million. That’s according to an internal document CPS provided WBEZ and Catalyst last week. But parents at Trumbull still haven’t been told anything is different.

Ali Burke, the parent there,  says she can’t believe CPS put out a school closing list and didn’t double check its numbers. She says Trumbull parents have been asking from the beginning for anything in writing that substantiates what CPS would save by closing their school.

BURKE: For us, it’s just incredibly frustrating. We should see the quote. We’re not talking about redecorating a bathroom, we’re talking about a school. They’re citing a quote, a bid that’s part of the reason they want to close our school—displace 406 students. We should know why we’re being closed.

Burke says she’s sure of one number at this point: her trust in the school district is at zero.

Linda Lutton reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation


District estimates of capital need at schools (or of potential capital savings if the school is closed) have shifted. Parents, teachers, principals and elected officials have complained that CPS is inflating repair costs in an effort to enlarge the apparent savings the district would achieve by closing schools.

Closed schoolYear last assessedCapital needs from last assessmentUpdated capital needs (based on CPS estimates) Provided to parents at many closing schools on March 21New capital "cost avoidance" (savings) estimates, May 2
Jackson, M.2010$2,655,000$8,456,000$5,319,582
Near North2010$3,038,000$12,267,000$8,154,564
Pershing East2010$1,382,000$12,819,000$2,549,545
Ward, L.2008$3,318,000$9,801,000$8,800,621
West Pullman2012/2013$8,816,347$14,919,000$11,011,397
Von Humboldt2010$10,748,000$24,687,000$18,320,455


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