By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and John Chase, Chicago Tribune reporters
8:19 AM CST, December 19, 2012
Reprint from Chicago Tribune
An internal Chicago Public Schools document obtained by the Tribune shows for the first time that the Emanuel administration has weighed how many elementary and high schools to close in which neighborhoods and how to manage the public fallout.
Labeled a “working draft,” the Sept. 10 document lays out the costs and benefits of specific scenarios — revealing that the administration has gone further down the path of determining what schools to target than it has disclosed.
While schools are not listed by name, one section of the document contains a breakdown for closing or consolidating 95 schools, most on the West and South sides, as well as targeting other schools to be phased out gradually or to share their facilities with privately run charter schools.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his top school leaders have said they are in the early stages of making difficult decisions and that the city cannot afford to keep operating deteriorating schools with dwindling student populations in the face of a billion-dollar budget deficit. The document goes well beyond what the administration has outlined to the public.
Amid a September teachers strike, the Tribune reported that the Emanuel administration was considering plans to close 80 to 120 schools, most in poor minority neighborhoods. Administration officials have repeatedly denied they have such a figure.
“Unless my staff has a hidden drawer somewhere where they’ve got numbers in there, we don’t have a number,” schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in November.
But the internal document, prepared at a time when school leaders faced a December deadline to make their decisions public, lays out multiple scenarios for closing neighborhood schools and adding privately run charters — a key component of Emanuel’s plans for improving public education. Chicago Teachers Union members, aldermen and other charter school critics have accused the administration of favoring the charters while depriving schools in poor neighborhoods of needed improvements.
The document discusses how to deal with public reaction to school closing decisions, with ideas ranging from establishing “a meaningful engagement process with community members” to building a “monitoring mechanism to ensure nimble response to opposition to proposed school actions.”
It is unclear how closely the administration is following the ideas in the 3-month-old document; sources told the Tribune the school closing plans are being constantly updated and subsequent proposals have been kept under close wraps.
The detailed document obtained by the Tribune comes from a time when a Chicago teachers strike interrupted the beginning of the school year and Jean-Claude Brizard was still Emanuel’s schools chief; the embattled Brizard quit soon after. Byrd-Bennett was a top education official at CPS under Brizard and was named by Emanuel to succeed him.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said Tuesday that “this plan was proposed by past leadership at CPS and is not supported by CEO Byrd-Bennett.”
“In terms of whatever document you have, I don’t care when it’s dated, as of today there’s no list and there’s no plan,” Carroll said. “Maybe there were multiple, different scenarios passed around at some point, I don’t know, but there’s no list of schools.
When CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett took this position, she made it very clear that we were going to do this differently than how it’s been done in the past,” which is why she appointed a commission to take public input on school closings, Carroll said.
But under Byrd-Bennett’s tenure, at least one of the proposals outlined in the secret document has come to pass — the idea of a five-year moratorium on further school closings after this school year.
First mention: The September document raises the idea of a moratorium that would extend beyond Emanuel’s first term in office as part of the rollout of school closings. But the mayor’s first public mention of a moratorium came in November, when he offered it as a sweetener that helped persuade state lawmakers to extend the December deadline for announcing school closings to March.
Critics called the delay a ploy to give opponents less time to organize against the closings. But Emanuel said school officials needed the time to gather community input on the “tough choices” about school closings.
Byrd-Bennett said her decisions on what schools to close won’t come until after she receives recommendations from the commission she created. The Tribune reported last week that the commission chairman doesn’t plan on issuing recommendations until days before the March 31 deadline for announcing school closings — and even then, there are no plans for the commission to identify individual schools.
While CPS has not released a list of schools to close, it has made publicly available a breakdown of how much a building is used, performance levels per school and how expensive the facility is to keep open. School officials have said underenrollment is a key factor in school closing decisions this year. The school system recently released a list of about 300 “underutilized” schools — nearly half the district — that have dwindling student populations.
But the document obtained by the Tribune contains clues as to how the administration could make those decisions.
Closing breakdown: The most stark page in the document is a graphic that breaks down the 95 schools that could be closed in each of CPS’ 19 elementary and high school networks.
On the page, which contains a warning at the bottom that the graphic is a “preliminary work in process” and for “pre-decisional discussion only,” most of the schools are on the South and West sides, which are predominantly African-American and Hispanic sections of the city.
For instance, the graphic suggests most of the closings are occurring in elementary school networks: 12 schools in the South Side’s Burnham Park network, 11 schools in the West Side’s Austin-North Lawndale network and 11 in the Near West Side’s Fulton network. In comparison, the graphic suggests closing only one school in the Southwest Side’s Midway network, three in the North Side’s Ravenswood-Ridge network and no schools in the Northwest Side’s O’Hare network.
The report details the effect school closings could have on students, stating that there will be an “initial negative impact” due, in part, to students having to move to new schools but that over time there will be “improvement in educational outcomes” for students who move into better schools with more academic programs.
Still, it notes that improvement will depend on the quality of the remaining schools. Based on a “highly preliminary analysis,” the document states, an estimated 16,700 students would be sent to schools that are better, while an estimated 20,500 students would move to schools of an “equal level.” It says no students would go to schools that are performing worse than where they are going now.
CPS is making its decision in the midst of a $1 billion budget deficit for next year, and district leaders have said the school closings will help close that hole over time. They’ve estimated saving $500,000 to $800,000 for every school the district closes.
School savings: The report offers more details about potential savings, providing a wide-ranging estimate.
It states that depending on which schools are closed, if the district shuttered about 100 schools, the estimated savings would range from $140 million to $675 million over 10 years.
The document assumes the district will dispose of 46 buildings deemed to be the most expensive to maintain.
The savings, according to the document, would mostly come from avoiding capital costs for building upkeep and operational savings such as heating and daily engineering costs.
But the document also reveals that the district would lose some of those savings because it would have to make an “up-front cash investment” of $155 million to $450 million. The document lists “transition costs” for closing schools that would include severance pay for displaced teachers, added transportation to get students to new schools and extra security to help control potential gang violence that may arise.
It also is filled with details about the controversial issue of charter schools, including how many could be launched and whether they would be sharing a building with neighborhood schools, which school officials call “co-location.” CPS officials have said the issues of closing schools and opening charters are not connected.
The CPS plan also lays out various “community engagement” strategies for selling the school closings to the public and politicians.
In one section it details three such scenarios to consider, offering pluses and minuses for each. The “Deep Engagement” scenario calls for the “greatest community” input but notes that “may result in less actions,” such as fewer schools closed. A “No Deep Engagement” scenario “allows for largest pool of actions” but “zero community ‘buy-in.'”
It also anticipates everything from establishing a “war room” to monitoring all activities related to the closings. It notes the possibility of lawsuits, criticism from “elected officials” and the need to identify “go-to advocates outside of CPS” to counter expected criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union.
The document also contains the suggestion that the administration consider “options to discuss during engagement conversations” that could help win over community leaders, including magnet programs, playgrounds, allowing empty school buildings to be used for community centers and even renaming streets or parks after a shuttered school.
The document outlines strategy on the thorny issue of adding up to 20 charter schools a year at the same time it is closing neighborhood schools.
While the report says charters are “a core prong of CPS’s academic improvement strategy,” it also acknowledges the district will face criticism if it adds charter schools in the first year while also eliminating district-run schools.
To avoid that “perceived inconsistency,” the report states that the district cannot add so many charters when it is selling school closings as a way to address CPS’ fiscal crisis.
Indeed, the school board on Wednesday is expected to approve only four new charters this year.
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