SPRINGFIELD–Halfway through his presentation of a bill to force the Chicago Public Schools to testify as to how it plans to spend block grant money it receives from the state, Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) was asked to take the bill “out of the record.”

But Arroyo was actually pleased Wednesday when House Bill 3871  did not receive a vote in the Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. It was a sign that the CPS board eventually will, in his words, “be held accountable.”

“Yes, the CPS is gonna have a tough year,” Committee Chairperson Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) told colleagues as she accepted Arroyo’s agreement to hold his bill over to another day, a day when Chapa LaVia expects to devote significant committee time to resolving CPS-related disputes.

Legislators have proposed a number of bills intended to rein in CPS on school closings, class sizes and other matters.

Arroyo later said he wanted to amend his bill to specify that the referenced block grants are those from the state General Revenue Fund.

“I don’t want it to be confused with federal grants,” he said. “We [state legislators] give them one and a half billion dollars … and they don’t have to say what they do with it. They’re unaccountable.”

Frustrated with CPS

In a hallway conversation at the Capitol Wednesday, Arroyo waxed eloquent on the frustration he and other legislators from Chicago feel about the way their city’s massive school district operates. He is particularly displeased with what he perceives as the School Board’s lack of concern for how citizens feel when schools in their neighborhoods are abruptly closed or subjected to turnaround, in which a new principal is brought in and the entire staff fired.

“Say you’re the principal and your school is doing well. They will just come to you and say, ‘Jim, your school is being closed.’ You can say, ‘We’re making progress. Give me a little time.’ But it will do no good. Your school will be closed,” Arroyo said.

Doesn’t the board conduct hearings on such actions? Yes, Arroyo said, “but not at the school. You have to go to their office downtown.” He told of a hearing scheduled for two hours, starting at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. A CPS staff person took 50 minutes of that time explaining the reasons for the planned closure, and citizens who objected “were cut off” after speaking for just two minutes each.

Despite the timing, and a snowstorm on one occasion, the hearings on closings were packed.

The board does have some criteria for determining which schools to close or put into turnaround, but a state facilities task force, angered that district leaders failed to set a meeting with them to discuss their decisions in depth, now wants a moratorium on closings.

HB 4487, sponsored by Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago), would impose a one-year moratorium on CPS facilities interventions. It is currently stalled in the House Rules Committee and is, therefore, not available for consideration by LaVia’s committee.

More scrutiny

The CPS testimony required under Arroyo’s bill, HB 3871, must include information about “plans to build or repair schools and to close or consolidate schools.”

Although school “facility interventions,” as CPS calls closures and turnarounds, are the current hot button issue, Arroyo expressed general dissatisfaction with school governance in Chicago. “They ignore the local school councils and just do what they want to,” he complained.

Chapa LaVia did not set a date for a showdown hearing on CPS issues. Arroyo’s bill has been posted for the committee’s next hearing, on February 29, along with about 25 other bills that mostly relate to issues of general educational interest – with one exception.

Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville) is sponsoring a bill that goes to the heart of Arroyo’s concern. The law currently asserts that, to receive block grant funds from the state, CPS “is not required to file any application or other claim.” Eddy thinks that is wrong.

HB 4056, sponsored by Eddy, would require CPS to “submit application, approval data and claim information in the same manner and format as all other districts” seeking state grants. The bill is also posted for a committee hearing February 29.

Also posted is HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago), which requires the CEO to have earned a master’s degree in education and hold a current teaching certificate. Dunkin’s bill has been posted three times but he has not yet presented it for debate.

Similarly, HB 4455 (Rep. Marlow Colvin, D-Chicago), which would set maximum limits on the number of students in CPS classrooms, is also currently lodged in the Rules Committee.

The primary focus of attention Wednesday was Gov. Pat Quinn’s annual budget address. While he proposed dramatic cuts in most state agency budgets and called for the closure of state correctional, mental health and other facilities statewide, he did not propose significant cuts to education funding.

In fact, Quinn has recommended that the General Assembly increase early childhood education funding by $20 million over the current fiscal year, and grants to eligible, low-income college students by $50 million. In his FY 2013 capital budget proposal, Quinn included nearly $9 million in maintenance funding re-appropriations for repairs and improvements at 88 Chicago schools.

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