Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Closing a school, no matter how poorly it performs, is emotionally wrenching for students, parents and teachers. Now imagine that you had to close not one school, but dozens. That’s the painful reality facing leaders at Chicago Public Schools this year.The district faces a $1 billion budget deficit next year. One of the ways to start to fill that gap is to eliminate roughly 100,000 empty seats in schools. Those seats are empty because CPS badly mismanaged its real estate portfolio during the past decade, keeping open schools that should have closed.
Nearly 140 schools are more than half-empty. Keeping them open is a tremendous financial drain on the system. They must be closed.
On Monday, Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made a promise she might not be able to keep. After a round of school closings this year, she said, the system will set a five-year moratorium on closing schools.
Byrd-Bennett was trying to offer a confidence-builder to parents. She was also making an appeal to Illinois legislators. If CPS is to close schools in the next year it must, by law, deliver a list of proposed closings to the Legislature by Saturday. Byrd-Bennett has asked for an extension of that deadline to March 31, but that request has met resistance.
Hence, her offer on Monday: Give us the extension and we’ll promise no more schools will close for five years.
“For too many years, the district has made piecemeal decisions when it comes to school actions,” Byrd-Bennett told the City Club of Chicago on Monday. “Mayor Emanuel realises this has caused unnecessary disruption to our school communities year after year. The mayor has also made it clear that once we execute the final, comprehensive plan to address the school underutilization issue, we must give our parents, teachers, students and members of the communities the peace of mind they deserve. They should not worry each year about a potential school building being closed for underutilization.”
The immediate response to this offer wasn’t heartening. The Chicago Teachers Union and Parents United for Responsible Education panned the speech and demanded that no schools be closed. “It sounds as if the mayor is saying, ‘I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches,'” PURE wrote on its website.
Yes, this is going to be a rough process. CPS won’t help ease that by delaying the announcement of which schools are likely to close. Nor can the system realistically promise a five-year freeze on closing more schools. The school board has to have flexibility to make future decisions based on its finances and its student population.
CPS needs to be ready with a proposed closing list Dec. 1. The law requires a proposal — not a final decision — by then. It shouldn’t need a grace period from the Legislature. What it really needs from the Legislature is broad reform of the Chicago teachers pension system.
Yes, the district needs to build trust with parents. The best way to do that is to give them information right now.
CPS knows which schools have empty classrooms and are too expensive to operate. It knows which schools are the prime candidates to be shut. Keeping this news quiet until March 31 doesn’t create trust or transparency. It breeds scepticism, suspicion and more anxiety.
Byrd-Bennett has appointed a commission to lead the community discussion and offer recommendations. That commission held its first public meeting Monday. Think about how much more valuable this discussion would be if it were focused on the rationale for a plan to close specific schools and transfer the students to full, thriving, better-performing schools. Parents should have a chance to argue for saving schools identified on a closing list.
Moreover, springing the proposed closing list four months from now will make it more difficult for parents to plan for their children’s education next fall.
“We need to engage all levels of the community,” Byrd-Bennett said Monday. “The members of our community deserve to be treated as authentic partners.”
Yes, they do. Make them partners by levelling with them.
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