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Trib: Commission Balks at Mass Closings

01/23/2013

Far fewer schools may close this year

As few as 15 schools could be closed if Chicago Public Schools officials take the advice of a bipartisan commission.

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporter | January 23, 2013
Click here to read the story on the Chicago Tribune’s website.

The commission on school closings has told Chicago Public Schools officials that shutting a large number of schools would create too much upheaval, and that it is leaning toward a recommendation for closing far fewer schools than many have feared — possibly as few as 15, sources said.

The findings of the Commission on School Utilization have intensified the debate over school closings within CPS, which has until March 31 to produce a list of schools that will be shut down.

Sources said some district officials are now looking at the possibility of closing fewer than 50 schools because commission members have found that a higher number would be untenable.

"Members of the commission felt that CPS was incapable, they didn't have the capacity to close 100-plus schools," said a source involved in the discussion.

The commission's recommendations are not binding, and the decision ultimately will be made by CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, whose proposal will need approval from the school board. Byrd-Bennett will consult with the board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the district will continue to take community input in a new series of meetings that begins Monday, district spokeswoman Becky Carroll said.

"She's made it very clear — this is her decision to make," Carroll said. "The final recommendations made to the board will be a decision she will make and own."

Fears that scores of schools would be closed were stoked during the teachers strike last September. Sources at the time said the Emanuel administration was considering closing 80 to 120 schools to deal with a burgeoning deficit and declining enrollment.

Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett successfully lobbied the state Legislature to delay the December deadline for announcing school closings, while she appointed the commission to engage residents and rebuild the trust of communities angered by previous closing decisions.

But while critics questioned the independence of Byrd-Bennett's commission, sources said the eight-member body's finding that a significantly fewer number of schools should be closed has surprised administration officials.

After a series of sometimes heated public hearings, the commission submitted a report earlier this month that recommended high schools and high-performing schools be removed from consideration for closing. Last week, Byrd-Bennett agreed to those two recommendations.

Commission members have told CPS leadership that they believe closing a large number of schools would upend the lives of too many students and families, sources said.

The commission has determined the district doesn't have the capacity to handle the logistics of closing a large number of schools. Those issues would include adjusting teacher assignments, rewriting individualized programs for special education students, drawing up new schedules for tens of thousands of students and ensuring safety programs are in place at receiving schools — all in less than five months.

The commission's final report isn't due until March. If the report recommends that only a few schools be closed, the administration would be hard-pressed to shut a much higher number.

"The commission has provided a reality check that gives Barbara Byrd-Bennett a credible basis to push back against those that may be calling for massive closings," said a source with ties to the district. "The hearings they have conducted have been a real wake-up call to understand the reality for so many families and students who will bear the brunt of this dislocation without the assurance of real improvements in their educational opportunities."

Commission Chairman Frank Clark, a former ComEd chief executive officer, did not respond to requests for comment.

CPS cited a $1 billion deficit and declining enrollment when it said last fall that it needed to close schools to "right-size" the district. It released a list of 330 schools that are underenrolled.

But sources said the commission has not accepted the district's argument that closing schools will make a significant dent in the deficit.

A 2011 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that looked at school closings in six urban districts including Chicago found that enrollment declines, the rise of charter schools and budget shortfalls have forced school closings for more than a decade.

The average annual savings from a closed school was initially less than $1 million per school per year, the study found.

"The savings are relatively small in the context of a big city school budget, which can be billions of dollars," said Emily Dowdall, senior associate with the Philadelphia Research Initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts, who wrote the report.

Also, the study found that most school districts were unable to sell or get rid of their closed facilities.

"Selling the buildings can be difficult, and that is a result of the condition, size and age of the building," Dowdall said, adding that Chicago is working on plans to sell 24 former school properties.

The final outcome of the CPS commission's work remains unclear. CPS and officials at the mayor's office said they expected a list of school closings. Clark has said the commission was charged only with defining the criteria by which schools would be considered for a shutdown.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union and parent groups opposed to school closings have continued with their campaign against them. On Tuesday, parent group Raise Your Hand brought together a handful of parents from underused schools who argued that their buildings are being well used, and that extenuating circumstances led to a low student count. CPS spokeswoman Carroll said principals are being surveyed individually to make sure all extenuating circumstances are considered.

Torrence Shorter, who has four children at Ryerson Elementary, which is on the list of underenrolled schools, said the West Side school building has close to 500 students, not the 399 reported on the 20th day of school.

"My heart hurts to even think that you're going to close this school down," he said.

Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.

nahmed@tribune.com

Chicago Teachers Union