Thanks to recently enacted legislation, Austin residents have until the end of November to weigh in on new criteria that will govern how the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) determines school closings and other actions in the coming year.
The preliminary “Guidelines for School Action,” released Oct. 31, requires the district to consider public input before finalizing the criteria Nov. 30. Members of the public have until 5 p.m. Nov. 21 to express their opinions to CPS.
“[This new legislation] may not totally stop what CPS does [with school closings], but it really holds their feet to the fire,” said Dwayne Truss, vice-chair of the Austin Community Action Council. “What [the task force has done] is a total asset to the community.”
The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force is an Illinois General Assembly committee consisting of state senators, state representatives, and community activists and leaders. Headed by Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago), it was responsible for SB 630, which was signed into law in August. The bill was written in response to research that showed inequities in the school maintenance budget and inconsistent policies for school closings and transitions.
“Things were really haphazard at CPS in regards to school closings,” said Cecile Carrol, the co-chair of the task force’s facility master planning subcommittee. “For school closings, criteria changed year to year, and a lot of the times it seemed like the criteria changed to fit those particular schools they wanted to take over.”
Last week, Carrol and other task force members held two community meetings at the Austin Public Library to explain the new legislation, which could change how the school district closes schools, communicates with the community and allocates money for maintenance and repairs. They put on presentations both Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
Carrol presented information to a group of five Lewis Elementary School parents Thursday morning who attended because they were concerned about Lewis’ seemingly permanent state of flux.
“Our school has been on probation forever, and every year you wonder if it’s going to close or what’s going to happen to it,” said parent Sandra Castleberry.
“[I don’t know] if it is going to open as a charter school or something, and if my kid is still going to be able to [attend it]. And it’s kind of hard because that’s our neighborhood school,” Castleberry said.
The new legislation requires CPS to publish a list every year of the schools officials are considering closing, and each school will have a two-year probationary period before it closes.
This year after the guidelines are finalized CPS will publish its first-ever public list of schools targeted for closing.
“On Dec. 1, 2011, they will publish the school action list so parents will know what schools they are considering,” Carrol said. “They aren’t going to make the decision until February so parents will have a chance to comment.”
Of particular interest to Austin is the task force’s findings on CPS’ formula for determining underutilization, an oft-used reason for CPS to close high-performing schools. According to research the committee considered, the district does not accurately calculate the needed square feet per student and regularly closes buildings that are operating using the proper amount of space.
“In Austin there is a lot of talk about this underutilization thing, and the district says some of the schools have less students than they should. Based on our research that is not always necessarily true. The old framework that CPS used was extremely flawed,” Carrol said.
According to the task force’s research, the ideal capacity for Chicago schools is 150 square feet per student, but CPS has closed many buildings operating at far less than 150 square feet per student and operates currently at about 93 square feet per student.
Lewis parent Kimberley Harmon said she attended the presentation to learn more about her rights regarding school closings.
“I just want to know what the process is, what the criteria is to close a school and what the parents rights are,” she said.
Carroll said it’s important residents and parents are aware of their ability to shape the new closure guidelines.
“With the school action guidelines, the more that we can get people to view them and engage with them, the more that we can get more committed people to make sure the legislation is implemented well. Because how CPS defines community engagement is very different from how we intended it when we wrote the bill,” Carroll said.
Under the new law CPS is now required to have an independent hearing officer who will make determinations on school closings, marking the first time the district has ever had someone from outside of CPS hear public protest and make the final decision.
Two parts of the law won’t take effect until 2013. CPS will be have to maintain a public database of maintenance expenditures, and the district will write a 10-year facilities master plan – something already in place in cities like New York and Los Angeles.
The database of maintenance expenses will make a big difference, Carrol said.
“Our thing was, make them show the money. Because when we were doing the research we saw some ridiculous things. We saw buildings being sold to charter schools for a dollar; we saw construction costs twice or three times what they were budgeted for; and we saw the politically connected schools, whether it be charter schools, turn-arounds or selective enrollment magnet schools, were being jumped up for repairs, while the schools that needed it haven’t seen some money in close to 10 years,” Carrol said.
Comments on the guidelines can also be submitted to CPS by doing the following by Nov. 21:
- E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
- The CPS.edu web site at: www.cps.edu/qualityschools
- Fax to 773-553-1559, Attn: CEO’s Office re: Draft Guidelines
- Mail to Chicago Public Schools, 125 S. Clark Street, 5th Floor, Chicago, IL 60603, Attn: CEO’s Office re: Draft Guidelines
- Parents and community members can also pick up copies of the guidelines at their local schools.