District officials have said they don’t want to link the volatile issue of school closings with the equally volatile issue of charter school openings. But a major pro-charter foundation is providing financial backing for the current crop of school closing meetings taking place around the city this month.

The district is now engaged in a community engagement process intended to provide feedback to the district as it contemplates what schools to close. That process is being underwritten by the Walton Family Foundation (a foundation run by the founders of Wal-Mart). The Walton Foundation has fueled the expansion of charter schools across the country and, in January, announced that CPS was the largest recipient of charter school grants in the country.

The Walton Foundation agreed in November to provide CPS with a grant for the community engagement process around the “utilization crisis,” according to the CPS communications office. The foundation lists a $478,000 grant to the Children First Foundation, a not-for-profit set up by CPS (Spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler confirmed the $478,000 is likely the grant for the community engagement process.)

The district had not budgeted for a “rigorous community engagement effort” and therefore needed to reach out for funding, notes spokeswoman Becky Carroll. CPS is using the grant to pay for the “independent facilitators” from the Loran Marketing Group, which is running the breakout sessions at the community meetings.

The content of these breakout sessions is not clear. CPS has banned the media from attending them.

In addition, the money is paying for robo-calls to tell parents about the meetings, mailings to parents and “other engagement and communication platforms.” Carroll stresses that the community engagement process is happening, but “not at taxpayer expense.”  

“This grant is allowing us to initiate what is probably the most inclusive and rigorous outreach to parents CPS has done to include their voice at the front end of this process,” Carroll says.  

Other charter voices

Other ties have made it difficult for the district to quell suspicions among parents, grassroots activists and the Chicago Teachers Union that CPS plans to replace closed schools with new charters.

The School Utilization Commission that is advising the district on closings is staffed by the Civic Consulting Alliance, a not-for-profit that does business consulting for city government. The Civic Consulting Alliance is housed in the same office as New Schools for Chicago, an organization that funds and advocates for charter schools. New Schools for Chicago also received a $220,000 Walton Family Foundation Grant.

Civic Consulting Alliance CEO Brian Fabes says his organization is doing pro-bono work for the commission. He says that New Schools and the Civic Consulting Alliance are not connected, though they share several of the same board members. 

In the past, most of the closed schools have eventually become charter schools.

At community meetings that have already taken place, attendees have repeatedly accused CPS officials of wanting to close schools in order to make way for charter schools.

CPS officials, however, say that schools need to close in order to “right-size” a school district with shrinking enrollment. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has promised not to allow any of the newly-closed schools to become charter schools, yet charter schools could still be located in the same communities as closed schools. 

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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