With a week to go before CPS must propose guidelines for school closings and other actions, district officials are holding last-minute meetings to give community leaders a reality check, as well as ask their advice on the criteria.

These meetings are forerunners to those CPS is required to hold after announcing the guidelines, and then on the proposed actions themselves, which are due Dec. 1, said Adam Anderson, head of planning and strategy for the CPS Office of Portfolio.

“What we are doing tonight is because we believe it is the right thing to do,” Anderson told a packed meeting held Tuesday night at Daley College on the Southwest Side. Other meetings will be taking place throughout the week, including Wednesday night at Truman College in Uptown, Thursday night at Kennedy-King College and next Monday at the Charles Hayes Center in Grand Boulevard.

CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said these meetings are not open to the general public, as they are intended to be an opportunity for people to express opinions in private. However, the fact that these meetings are private is not clear to recipients of the invitations, as notices have been put on listserves, such as everyblock.com, and forwarded to a wide range of people. 

Ziegler said the school action process will be transparent.

While the mandatory hearings are often contentious, these meetings are highly orchestrated, with participants asked to answer specific questions and take surveys.

The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which is made up of state lawmakers and community activists, recommended that CPS publish the guidelines early and post all opportunities for feedback at the beginning of October, said task force member Cecile Carroll. She is now worried that CPS officials are taking the recommendations and implementing them “swiftly and haphazardly.”

Last year, the guidelines and school actions were never changed once they were proposed, despite a lot of input at the hearings. Carroll said she has gotten indications that the same thing will happen this year. 

CPS officials at the meeting said they are trying to make the process of school closings more palatable than last year, when CPS was sharply criticized for not heeding input and some community members were paid by a politically connected organization to show up at meetings in support of the actions.

Officials conceded they are skeptical that any outreach efforts could temper the resistance to school actions. Still, they said they wanted to prevent community members from coming forward and saying they didn’t know that their schools were in bad shape and in danger of being targeted.

Also, one official said he regretted that the meetings were hurried. Some community leaders only got invitations the day before, though CPS officials said they sent them out last week. Officials said they were delayed by the teachers’ strike and the uncertainty over district leadership.

Michael Rendina, director of CPS intergovernmental affairs, said the district has been holding similar meetings over the last year, surveyed local school council members and held a tele-townhall meeting last week.

At a meeting held Tuesday night at Daley College, about 40 percent of the attendees were CPS employees. Others were from local community development organizations, and several were from the UNO charter school network.

This year, CPS plans to target severely under-used schools, in addition to those that are poorly performing.  Last year, poor academic performance was the main factor that doomed a school. Anderson said CPS is looking at consolidations rather than simply closing schools, though even in a consolidation at least one school ends up shuttered. 

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Southwest High School Network Chief Liz Kirby set the stage by reminding people about the district’s dire financial straits and its supply of unused classrooms.  As many as 140 schools are more than 50 percent under-used, according to board calculations, though some community members and schools have disputed the figures.  Another challenge, Kirby said, is that a lot of school buildings need major repairs.

“In this area, many of the schools are overcrowded, but schools like Hope and Robeson [high schools] could easily serve 500 more students if you just look at the number of seats,” she said.

Also, 125,000 students attend Level 3 schools, the lowest rating that CPS gives schools.

Kirby then told the participants how the neighborhood schools fared: 27 percent are Level 3 schools, but only five of them are severely underutilized.

Next, the audience was given keypads and asked to vote on the following question: What is the most important thing that impacts students? The choices were: maintain the adults, maintain the building or provide an effective transition to a higher performing school nearby.

Immediately, Capers C. Funnye, rabbi at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation on the Southwest Side, grumbled. “This is very skewed. I feel like I am being used, and I don’t like being used. The choices are out of focus. Seems like the decisions have already been made and we are just supposed to fall into place.”

The preface to the question—that the district is broke and has much excess capacity—seemed to steer the answer, he said.

About 45 percent of the audience voted that it is important to provide effective transition to a higher-performing school.  The rest were split between the two other answers.

For the rest of the meeting, which lasted almost three hours, small groups discussed topics such as their personal priorities for schools — academic performance was tops — space utilization standards and the CPS school performance policy.

One question that emerged was whether the performance policy applies to charter schools. Anderson said that it does, but that CPS must wait to shut down a charter school until its contract is up. Most charter schools have five-year contracts, he said.

CPS rarely has declined to renew a charter school contract. This past year, former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said he was going to shut down some charter schools, but instead he awarded them a short two-or three-year contract. 

Anderson said that in the future, CPS officials want charter schools to be subject to the same school action process as district-run schools.

At the end of the meeting, participants were asked what should be added to the school action criteria. Overwhelmingly, participants voted that the district should consider whether the parents and community support the action.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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