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Editorial: Closing 54 schools so soon means pain

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett

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Updated: April 23, 2013 2:12PM



The CEO of the Chicago Public Schools is making a big mistake. Closing 54 elementary schools this summer — the largest number in the country in one year in at least the last decade — is too many. The most Chicago previously has closed in a single year is 12. Last week, we recommended closing no more than 35 schools this year.

The size of the overhaul is mind-boggling.

Not only will CPS close 54 schools because of low enrollment and transfer those students to at least 55 other schools . CPS also wants to “turnaround” six schools (same kids, same building, new adults) and co-locate 23 schools in 11 buildings.

About 138 schools will be impacted, affecting more than 30,000 kids. That’s about 22 percent of CPS’ 585 district-run schools.

This in a school district that barely functions on a good day.

Don’t misunderstand: School closings are necessary. And CPS gets high marks for its plan to invest heavily in the receiving schools, equipping each with air conditioning, a library, iPads for older grades, extra academic supports, help from a retired principal, extra security and other capital upgrades. These schools, which are supposed to be higher performing than the sending schools, have gone without such basic necessities for too long.

We support closures, then, but over a longer period of time — some this June, the rest in June 2014 — to give CPS the very best chance to safely and humanely transition students and faculty. Other cities that have closed far fewer schools say that CPS’ timetable is inviting trouble and chaos.

We urge the Board of Education, which must approve the closures, to push for this extended schedule. But if CPS insists on doing all the closings at once this summer, it should whittle its list further after hearings on every proposed closure in the coming weeks. CPS undoubtedly will learn vital new information that should force it to reconsider — certain schools aren’t nearly as underused as they appear on paper, for example, and certain consolidations will harm the receiving schools.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who released her long-awaited closure list on Thursday, has done a good job of listening. She also has publicly promised to keep listening.

We don’t think CPS “manufactured” its utilization crisis, as critics accuse. CPS has too many seats and too few children, largely because of population loses on the South and West Sides, a problem long ignored.

And CPS has already pared down its closure list significantly after listening to thousands of parents at dozens of hearings. That was only fair, particularly since the formula CPS used to initially assess a building’s usage rate exaggerates the number of under-used schools. Byrd-Bennett also removed many schools from the list on the basis of sound recommendations from a commission she empaneled, a group that ably investigated the issue on its own.

This kind of genuine reaching out, before decisions are made, was a first for Chicago.

CPS also has planned for these moves like never before. In addition to logistical planning and the goodies such as air conditioning, 19 of the receiving schools are to get new programs in either math/science, International Baccalaureate or the fine arts. All these upgrades, CPS says, will be paid for over two years from savings derived from the closings. We fear that’s overly optimistic, given the $233 million price tag. It’s worth noting that the closure savings won’t reduce CPS’ projected $1 billion deficit this year.

The coming days will be ugly. Parents will be outraged, the teachers union will go to war.

But remember this: CPS will need all the help it can get. Whether you approve or not, schools will be closed and kids will be moved.

Chicago must come together to do the best it can for these kids.



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