If CPS gets extra time to plan this year’s round of school closures, district leadership is pledging to stop closing schools for the following 5 years. That announcement made by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett Monday provided one of the backdrops for the first Commission on School Utilization meeting. Another backdrop was a state legislative hearing set for Tuesday, when lawmakers will consider a bill to extend the deadline to announce school closings from Dec. 1 to March 31.

If CPS doesn’t get the extension, the district may not move forward with the closings this year. “As Barbara has said, we cannot close schools without engaging the community,” CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said before Byrd-Bennett’s Monday afternoon talk at the City Club of Chicago.

The bill is being sponsored by State Sen. Iris Martinez, who is a co-chair of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a body that has in the past been critical of the way CPS carried out school actions. Martinez is also on the closings commission.

Martinez said State Rep. Cynthia Soto is co-sponsoring the bill with her. But Soto did not return calls confirming the sponsorship. Some grassroots activists and the Chicago Teachers Union said they were unaware that Soto was sponsoring the bill.

If the extension bill gets the support of Martinez and Soto, it likely it will be approved. However, Martinez said that there will probably be many amendments to the bill that put more stipulations on CPS, such as requiring that students in targeted schools get to apply to magnet, selective enrollments and charter schools once the decisions are announced.

At a speech at the City Club on Monday, Byrd-Bennett said that if CPS doesn’t close schools this year, the results will be dire.

“We are facing a daunting fiscal future,” Byrd-Bennett said in the speech, which also noted the district’s ballooning pension obligations. Byrd-Bennett said that the district’s fiscal crisis “will threaten everything.”

Byrd-Bennett said the district has seats for 500,000 students, but just over 400,000 children are enrolled.

CPS leaders could be gearing up to close as many as 100 schools, though Byrd-Bennett insisted “there is no number” that district officials are now aiming for The main criterion they are looking at this year is school utilization, and as many as 140 schools are considered underutilized.

Taking questions from reporters after her speech, Byrd-Bennett conceded that the utilization formula may not be accurate for some schools – such as those with special education students who require smaller classes. She said the district is currently analyzing which schools might be exceptions to the formula.

She also said the plan to stop closings after this year was a product of conversations with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and argued that it could actually create richer, better-resourced neighborhood schools in the long run. When asked if the plan would tie the hands of future CEOs, Byrd-Bennett replied: “I’m going to be here for those five years.”

Plan faces union opposition

CTU President Karen Lewis says the union is lobbying legislators to tell them teachers oppose the extension. Among other issues, CTU leaders have said the district leadership is in disarray and that closings will not result in substantial savings.

Rather than announce a moratorium after this round, CTU leaders would like a moratorium to start now – and include a halt to school turnarounds and phase-outs. Vice President Jesse Sharkey says the union wants more information about how CPS will ensure student safety and give neighborhood schools enough resources, as well as what charter schools the district plans to open.

“It’s not just a school closing policy, it’s a school opening policy,” Sharkey says. He adds: “There are reasons behind the December 1 deadline,” like allowing families to plan which schools their children will attend.

Byrd-Bennett says community members, too, distrust the district. In her meetings with the community, “the resounding refrain was, ‘We don’t trust you. We don’t believe you. You have been doing things to us,’” she said.

At the commission hearing, the first of at least six that will take place, Northeastern University professor Robert Starks also issued a warning. He said that community groups are gearing up for a fight against school closings that “will make the strike look like child’s play.”

He presented the commission with a laundry list of questions they need to be able to answer, and said commission members need to deal with the issue of charter schools and the privatization of public education. Also, they need to address safety and transportation issues.

“This is to [former police superintendent] Terry Hillard, under your administration when schools were closed or consolidated didn’t violence escalate?” he asked. Hillard is on the commission.

Commission Chairman Frank Clark reiterated that the commission is charged with looking at school utilization and was not to consider what, if anything, will open in their place. But other commission members seemed interested in the question.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st Ward), who is on the commission, asked CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley how much of the district’s money is spent on charter schools.

At first, Cawley said that charter schools are public schools and so they are not considered a separate entity. Then, he explained that 12 percent of the district’s students have their education contracted out to either charter schools or private schools for special education students, but that only 9 percent of the district’s budget is spent on these students. However, he stopped short of saying the district saves money by sending students to charters or other contract schools.

Class size and utilization

Another question that was brought up at the commission meeting is whether class sizes and structure should be considered in looking at utilization. Several people have brought up why there are overcrowded classes in under-utilized schools.

“This raises eyebrows,” said the CTU’s Brandon Johnson. “You have classes with 38 kids split between kindergarten and 1st grade. My son turns five today. Owen deserves better than that.”

Small schools without enough students in a grade (CPS allocates one regular classroom teacher for every 28 students) often have to combine grades or pay for an extra teacher out of discretionary money.

DePaul University education professor Barbara Radner told the commission that splitting classes is detrimental to students, especially those in the younger grades. In high school, she said small schools mean that teachers often have to teach several subjects, including those they aren’t certified to teach.

“What we have is an educational shrinkage,” she said.

Yet Radner did not necessarily advocate the closings of schools. Rather than look at efficiency, she asked the commission to look at efficacy or what is best for students. She said they need to think about using empty school space for health care clinics or for community colleges classes.

Radner also suggested looking at having a primary center in one building and a middle school in another. This way each would draw more students of the same grade from a wider geographic area.

“We need to think outside the box,” she said.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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