In releasing this year’s all-important school utilization rates, CPS officials took pains to make the point that half-empty schools are largely the result of a declining school-age population, likely seeking to take the focus off charter schools as a factor in the enrollment loss.

The number of children in Chicago between the ages of 0 to 19 dropped by 145,000 between 2000 and 2010, said Adam Anderson, the district’s officer of portfolio, planning and strategy. In areas that saw major declines (more than 25 percent), one-third of schools are more than half empty, according to CPS calculations.

In areas that experienced an increase in school-age children, one-third of schools are overcrowded, Anderson said.

Anderson noted exceptions to the rule, with some overcrowded schools in areas of population decline. “Usually these are the higher-performing schools,” he told the Commission on School Utilization at a hearing Monday.  The commission is a nine-member group appointed by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

The emphasis on declining population is perhaps an attempt to counter the argument made by some activists that charter schools have drained neighborhood schools of students. Because CPS leaders support charter schools and are responsible for opening them, they don’t want them entangled in the discussion about closing schools.

CPS officials said they have not done an analysis looking at whether charter schools have exacerbated the problem of under-utilization.

Based on current enrollment figures, this year’s list of underutilized schools is not much different than last years. According to CPS calculations, 330 schools are below capacity and 136 are more than half empty.

Under-utilized, under-achieving

With so many schools officially under-capacity, how leaders will settle on specific schools is still unknown. 

Black students make up 73 percent of enrollment in underutilized schools and 85 percent of those students in schools that are more than 50 percent underutilized, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of the information released by the district. While Austin and North Lawndale have the largest total number of under-utilized schools, East Garfield Park and Englewood have the most schools that are considered severely under-utilized.

Half of the schools that are under-utilized are at Level 3, the lowest rating CPS hands out.

At the commission hearing on Monday, Clark acknowledged that black and Latino communities will likely be hit hardest by school closings.

“The harsh reality is that the areas that are least impacted have few minorities,” he said. “All the areas that [have the biggest drops in population] are black and brown and low-income. It is also where the highest unemployment is and the highest gang problem.”

The updated utilization rates were not required to be released until Dec. 31, but the Commission on School Utilization had been asking for the information. Commission Chairman Frank Clark said at the group’s first meeting Monday night that he was unsure if the group would produce a list of schools recommended for closure.

But Bennett said on Tuesday that she expects such a list.

CPS officials say they need to close schools so that they can focus their scarce resources on fewer buildings. According to CPS, the district will have a $1 billion budget deficit next year.

Officials also say repairing and maintaining all their buildings is too costly. To maintain and make necessary repairs to the district’s 738 buildings would cost $6.5 billion, said Chief Facilities Officer Pat Taylor. This includes installing air conditioning in schools, but not putting libraries and art rooms in each building.

CPS also published information on how much each school needs in repairs and maintenance. Under-utilized schools need about $3.7 million to keep up, far less than the amount needed for other buildings.

Note: Below is an Excel file with the utilization rates by school. CPS posted information on its school quality website. Catalyst’s database includes the community areas where schools are located, as well as the demographics of the schools.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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