One of the first things some Chicago Public Schools parents, Chicago Teachers Union officials and other community stakeholders wanted to know from the new CPS CEO was if she would close schools as her predecessor had planned to do starting next school year.
School closures, remain an unpleasant notion for opponents of the plan because they feel it will disproportionately and negatively impact minority students and families. It was expected that some 100 schools would be closed at the end of this school year.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett told the Chicago Citizen at the start of her administration in October that she had not assessed the closures and, at the time, didn’t have numbers. But last week she asked the Illinois General Assembly for an extension on the Dec. 1 deadline CPS faced to disclose closures and other school actions. Her request was granted and Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on a three-month reprieve.
Now the school district has until March 31 to announce what it plans to do and Byrd-Bennett said that she is using the time to engage the community.
The CEO has set up an independent Commission on School Utilization that is expected to produce recommendations to “right-size” the nation’s third largest school district which serves just over 400,000 students but has facilities space to accommodate some 500,000.
The nine commission members are: Former ComEd CEO Frank Clark; 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins; New Life Covenant Church Pastor John Hannah; West Side community advocate Earnest Gates; former Robeson High School math teacher Deberah Perkins; Fiske Elementary School asst. parent coordinator Shirley Calhoun; former Chicago Police Department Supt. Terry Hilliard; former Bowen High School principal Fausto Lopez; and state Sen. Iris Martinez, D-20th Dist.
The Commission will hold public meetings across the city, listen and gather input from parents, teachers and school communities, meet with subject matter experts and present a written report in March to guide CEO Byrd-Bennett in making decisions around school actions, according to CPS. There will be five meetings where the public will be able to speak and there will be several other commission meetings where the public may attend but not give input.
Additionally, at her boss’ request, Byrd-Bennett announced a moratorium on school closures for the next five years. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who took office one year ago, said the halt to closing schools would give the city and school district time to assess and engage the public — something he said hadn’t been done in the past. He explained, however, that having underutilized schools was expensive for the cash-strapped school system.
“We know that our city has a significant number of schools that are underutilized, stretching resources thin and not giving every student a quality education. In the past, there has been too much uncertainty around changes to our schools: year after year, Chicago Public Schools did not do an adequate job of engaging communities in these critical decisions, and year after year students, families and communities were left wondering of what was to come. That ends this year,” the mayor said. “I have directed CPS to implement a moratorium on CPS facility closures, ending unnecessary disruption to students and parents and bringing stability to our schools.”
CTU officials opposed giving CPS the extension and wanted the school district to reveal its “hit list” by the Dec. 1 deadline. The union, headed by Karen Lewis, called for a stop to all school closures, turnarounds, phase-outs and other “draconian” actions. But the moratorium will not apply to turnarounds.
The first commission meeting was held Nov. 26 at the University of Illinois-Chicago where CPS officials and other education-related experts spoke. On Monday the first public hearing for community input was held at Salem Baptist Church on the far South Side. Friday a second public input meeting will be held at Marquette Park on 67th Street and Kedzie Avenue.
For more information on the commission, including the meeting schedule, visit www.schoolutilization.com.
By Rhonda Gillespie