CPS officials have told a state legislative committee that they will expand the criteria for closing schools this year to include under-utilization, not just long-term academic failure.

Officials also have been going out to community action councils—CPS-organized groups of community stakeholders—and giving them lists of under-utilized, low-achieving schools, as if to prepare them for what might happen.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data shows that 145 schools are both under-utilized and at Level 3 on the academic rating scale (the lowest rating given by the district). About 80 of the 145—and all but three on the South and West sides of the city—are more than 50 percent under-utilized.

School closings are a factor in the current teacher contract negotiations because one sticking point is the job rights of teachers displaced by closings and other school actions. At the Illinois Facilities Taskforce meeting on Thursday night, the urgency of the issue became clear.

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was supposed to attend Thursday’s meeting, but, according to CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler, everyone agreed that he could not make an appearance during negotiations.

Still, task force members went ahead with the meeting in preparation for events in the coming months. By late October, CPS is required by law to publish school action guidelines. Then, on Dec. 1, officials must announce which schools they plan to close and, at their February meeting, approve the actions.

Meanwhile, CPS by law must develop a 10-year master facilities plan. A draft of the plan must be published by January 2013 and in place by July 2013.

“They are putting the cart before the horse,” said Nona Burney, a member of the task force who said she would have liked to see the district hold off on school actions until after the master plan is in place. Instead, she says she has been told that CPS will not wait.

Dispute over utilization formula

With the enrollment losses of recent years, CPS has more seats in schools than it has students. But only recently have leaders publicly acknowledged that they plan to do something about it. Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said at last month’s board meeting that the district will have to be restructured to contain the deficit.

Dwayne Truss, who is the vice chairman of the Austin Community Action Council, said he has decided to resign from the council and fight against the closings. He said 17 of 19 schools in Austin are considered under-utilized.

Truss said he made this decision after CPS maneuvered to put a charter school in place at one school campus with limited community input. “Why would you put a charter school in a community with so many under-utilized schools?” he said. “We are looking at over-saturation.”

Committee members told Truss that community activists need to prepare themselves for the school actions by taking stock of their schools, saying that CPS’ definition for utilization is inadequate: CPS divides the number of students by 30 and adds a certain number of additional classes for programs like art and special education. Burney says other school districts are more specific, with criteria such as designating a certain number of children for each grade level.

CPS’ utilization formula also doesn’t take into account the specific circumstances at schools, such as community health clinics or special programs that are using the buildings.

“You need to survey your schools and see how they are using the space,” Rep. Cynthia Soto told Truss. “You need to be ready.”

Committee members also bemoaned the fact that the district gave the lists of under-utilized schools to the community councils, not to local school councils. The community councils were created under former CEO Ron Huberman to come up with education plans for their neighborhoods.  The plans were completed just as Brizard took over but were never implemented, angering many on the councils.

Since then, CPS has created additional community councils, perhaps to be sounding board for school actions.

Carol Johnson, who is on the Austin council, said she plans to bring the information to the two LSCs she also serves on. “The LSCs are the elected bodies and we need to let them know what is going on,” she said.

Burney is in charge of the subcommittee that will provide recommendations to CPS on how to revise the school action process.

The subcommittee is recommending that CPS guidelines for this year be more transparent. Last year, the guidelines were generic and so many schools met the closings criteria that it was impossible to know why one school was chosen for action over the others, Burney said.

The subcommittee also wants the district to do a better job communicating and responding to the concerns of the community, though CPS has called last year’s process the most transparent the district has had.

Last year, CPS released draft guidelines, but didn’t make any changes to them because they said they didn’t have time. CPS officials also didn’t take any school off of the proposed action list.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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