CPS officials on Tuesday mostly dismissed the conclusions by independent hearing officers that the district should not close 11 schools, without addressing safety concerns and questions about the academics at the receiving schools.  

Speaking on background, the officials said that the hearing officers–who concluded that CPS did not comply with state law and therefore should not close the schools–either did not understand or over-stepped their role.

Of 54 schools, hearing officers concluded that the following should not be closed: Buckingham Special Education Center, Calhoun, Delano, King, Mahalia Jackson, Manierre, Mayo, Morgan, Overton, Williams Elementary and Williams Middle School. In addition, a hearing officer said the closures of Stockton and Stewart should be delayed and that Bowen High School should not be forced to co-locate with a new Noble Street Charter School.

The hearing officers’ findings are not binding.

In a statement released later Tuesday, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that the reports will be considered by Board of Education members. The board is set vote on proposals to close 54 schools and co-locate another 11 at their May 22 meeting. If approved, this will be the largest restructuring of a major urban school district ever.

“We are grateful for the work and dedication hearing officers have brought to this process,” Byrd-Bennett said in her statement.

Hope for opponents, but no guarantee

Given that the opinions were written by well-respected former judges, the reports could give new fodder to closing opponents and may bear weight on board members’ votes.  

CPS officials note that in the vast majority of cases, hearing officers simply concluded that CPS complied with the law. But the officers in other cases listened to impassioned pleas from teachers, parents, principals, aldermen and state lawmakers, and issued reports that indicated they understood their concerns.

Otis Taylor, principal of Buckingham Special Education School, says he didn’t know what to expect when he went to the hearing. He and parents told the hearing officer that the commute is too long from Buckingham, on the far South Side, to Montefiore School on the Near West Side. 

The hearing officer agreed, saying that the CEO “failed to consider pertinent information on the safety impact that the long commute will have on Buckingham students.” 

Taylor says the finding gives him hope. “I am glad it came out like that and I am optimistic.”

As is the case with Buckingham, in most scenarios the officers opposed a closing because they did not think the district had made sufficient transition plans that addressed academic or safety concerns.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says the district was only required to provide a draft transition plan—which, as drafts, are works in progress and won’t be complete until mid-June. She added it was not up to the hearing officers to comment on the quality or feasibility of the plan.

But many of them did just that.

“Generalities and vague promises”

Hearing officer Paddy McNamara notes that “it cannot be emphasized enough how concerned the Manierre parents are about their children’s and their own safety if Jenner and Manierre are merged into one school.” The two Near North Side schools are such deep rivals that the basketball league realigned so that they don’t play each other, according to the testimony.

She decided “that CPS violated its own guidelines by failing to consider the unique circumstances of Manierre.”

Regarding plans for the closing of Morgan Elementary, hearing officer David Coar noted two deficiencies. First, the transition plan did not adequately answer the question of whether Ryder, set to receive Morgan’s students, could meet the need of special education students. Second, CPS did not tell parents enough about how safety concerns would be addressed.

“The safety of the youngest and most vulnerable children in the school system is a very serious thing, not to be addressed with generalities and vague promises,” wrote Coar, a former federal judge. “Violence is a fact in the city of Chicago and in the neighborhoods involved in this school closing in particular.”

Hearing officer Charles Winkler echoed these concerns. However, instead of opposing the closure of Stockton and Stewart, he suggested that CPS wait until the 2014-2015 school year.

Then, he asks these probing questions: “Will an understaffed Chicago Police Department be able to provide enough officers to assist the Stewart children? Will CPS hire a private security company to furnish properly trained personnel? Is there really enough time to get everyone up to speed so the 14,400 children from the closing schools are provided safe passage?”

Carroll says the school district is still working with the Chicago Police Department to firm up plans. However, the transition plans rely on what are called “safe passage workers” to make sure students get from school to home. Safe passage workers are adults from the community who stand on corners and watch students as they walk home, calling the police if they spot trouble.

Academic quality

Other hearing officers cited academic concerns. In the past, most displaced students have landed at schools that are not much better than the schools that closed.

One current proposal involves Overton and Mollison, both of which are Level 3 schools, the lowest possible rating given by CPS. Overton is slated to close, with its students sent to Mollison.

Byrd-Bennett’s guidelines say that if two schools have the same rating, the district can still consolidate, as long as the receiving school outperforms the closing school on four of the performance criteria established by the district. The performance criteria include ISAT scores and measures of academic growth, as well as attendance.

Under those guidelines, Overton qualifies to be consolidated into Mollison. Hearing officer Carl McCormick does not dispute that, but he does point out that the guidelines don’t lead to the ultimate goal—a better education for the students who are displaced.

“We must ask, is it relevant or significant that the higher-performing school is rated in the lowest academic level and is on probation?” wrote McCormick, a former Cook County Circuit Court Judge. “This is tantamount, using a food metaphor, to the promise of an omelet with a crisp waffle. Then what is actually delivered is broken eggs, whose contents are oozing out, and a burnt pancake.”

Rather than addressing McCormick’s concerns, in a formal written response, CPS’ General Counsel James Bebley wrote “the Hearing Officer substituted his judgment for the CEO’s in applying a different standard to higher-performing schools than the one expressed in the guidelines.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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