Updated with pictures from Saturday’s summit against school closings.

The announcement that CPS leaders are recommending the Board of Education at their December meeting approve five new charter schools fueled a heated Commission on School Utilization hearing Friday night.

Opponents of school closings, including community groups and Chicago Teachers Union members, gathered Saturday at Marshall High School for a summit. Photos by Jonathan Gibby

Chairman Frank Clark said the charter proposals had been solicited by the district long before the school utilization commission was created. An audience member accused Clark of holding a pro-charter bias. Clark replied that the work of the commission does not include charter school considerations.

About 80 people attended the hearing, which was held on the southwest side at a park district building. 

The hearing was the second of six the commission will host this month before it publishes its recommendations to CPS. School action guidelines call for the closure of underutilized schools. According to the way CPS calculates school utilization, 330 schools are under capacity and 136 are half empty.

But district leaders have refused to say how many schools they want to target.

The role of the commission remains unclear. Clark repeated Friday night that the commission will not create a list of schools to be closed, only recommendations on criteria CPS should consider for closing underutilized schools, like safety, transportation and high-performance.

But CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she expects a list and Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz said he wants “actionable items” from the commission.

Clark, responding to a question about buildings left vacant from school closures, said the buildings would not be given to charter schools to use, a major concern for members of the audience.

Teachers present at the hearing were asked whether their schools were full. One issue that has repeatedly come up at these hearings is that many underutilized schools have classrooms with more than 28 students–the number established as a limit in the Chicago Teacher Union contract. 

 Some teachers in the audience said they had as many as 36.

Commission Member Pastor John Hannah said, “We agree 36 is too many in a classroom.”

Of particular contention among the audience was a comment Clark made after a commenter requested that transcripts of a non-public commission meeting be made public. Clark said that because Byrd-Bennett appointed the commission, it was not subject to transparency mandates listed in the Open Meeting Act. Still, Clark added he felt much of their work needed to be made public, and that recordings of all the commission’s public meetings are available at schoolutilization.com

Closing underutilized schools will not close the $1 billion budget deficit Chicago Public Schools faces,Clark acknowledged, but he added “hard decisions have to be made.”

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