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Byrd-Bennett proposes 5-year ban on CPS closures after this year

New Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks City Club Chicago lunch Maggiano's Banquets 111 W. GrAve. Monday Nov.26 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

New Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at the City Club of Chicago lunch at Maggiano's Banquets, 111 W. Grand Ave., Monday, Nov.26, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 28, 2012 6:15AM

Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett Monday revealed plans to close under-used schools and “right-size’’ a district with about 100,000 empty seats by fall, then declare a five-year moratorium on school closures.

The move would allow Chicago Public Schools to put the “angst’’ of closings behind it by next opening day, and give parents “peace of mind’’ afterwards that their school would not be on any chopping block for five years, Byrd-Bennett said.

The plan is contingent on the Legislature allowing the district to extend its deadline for producing a proposed school action list from Dec. 1 to March 31, Byrd-Bennett told an audience of the City Club.

Without such an extension, she said, a new School Utilization Commission would not have enough time to gather sufficient input from parents, teachers and residents on the volatile topic of school closings and consolidations.

After this school year’s shake-ups, Byrd-Bennett said, she would “personally commit’’ to making sure CPS stood by its five-year moratorium on closings — something Mayor Rahm Emanuel later revealed he had proposed.

Some questioned how CPS could possibly “right-size” the nation’s third-largest school district in a matter of months. CPS officials contend about 20 percent of the district — roughly 140 schools — are at least half-empty, while 10 percent are overcrowded. Other factors — such as lack of a safe route to a new school — could keep a half-empty school off the target list.

“If they are going to fix the entire problem in one fell swoop and not touch it for five years, it’s gonna have to be a massive action. It’s crazy,’’ said Chicago Teachers Union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle.

“It’s haphazard. It’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. It’s how we got into this mess.’’

CTU officials are pushing for at least a one-year moratorium on closings to ensure, for starters, that underutilized schools are truly underused. The new, nine-member School Utilization Commission, Mayle said, should personally visit every school closing or consolidation target before making any recommendation.

Mayle questioned if the swift closure timeline, followed by a five-year moratorium, was intended to push closures as far as possible from the 2015 mayoral election.

“It’s like pulling off a band-aid,’’ Mayle said. “You get it done and once people forget about the pain, by that time it’s time for re-election.’’

Byrd-Bennett continued to insist Monday that no “school closing list’’ exists, despite rumors to the contrary, and that the “piecemeal decisions’’ of past school actions needed to stop.

The proposed timeline allows for thorough and thoughtful input, followed by a period of peace that would allow CPS to focus on academics, she said.

In an emailed statement, Emanuel contended that underutilized schools are “stretching resources thin and not giving every student a quality education.’’

“In the past, there has been too much uncertainty around changes to our schools,’’ Emanuel said in the statement. “Year after year, Chicago Public Schools did not do an adequate job of engaging communities in these critical decisions, and year after year, students, families and communities were left wondering ... what was to come. That ends this year.’’

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll estimated that the district could save $500,000 to $800,000 by shuttering a school — money that could help the system as it faces a $1 billion deficit by school year’s end. To achieve any savings, Carroll said, closed buildings would have to be leased out or sold. That means they would not be available for whole-building conversion to a charter school — one concern of some aldermen.

However, Carroll said, to spare a half-empty school from closure, one possibility could be allowing a charter school to occupy half the building.

The promise of a five-year moratorium on school closings after the initial political bloodletting did not sit well with some African-American aldermen whose wards have lost the most population, and, therefore, stand to lose the most schools.

“I want it to be done right,’’ said South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th). “I want them to hold off for one year to give everyone time to get their arms around why the administration is making the decisions they’re about to make.’’

Sawyer accused Byrd-Bennett of “rushing into’’ a decision on school closings that will cause tremendous upheaval.

“I don’t think she’s gonna be prepared to make the argument for closings,’’ Sawyer said. “She just got into the position. She’s assembling a staff and trying to get up to speed on what’s going on. I just don’t think rushing into this is the right thing to do — whether it’s December or March.”

Jennifer Dounay Zinth, senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, said that for CPS to address 100,000 empty seats in less than a year would call for action on a “scale beyond what we’ve seen in other districts.’’

“It’s a massive problem that only a district as large as Chicago would be looking at,’’ Zinth said. “It’s pretty ambitious.’’

However, CPS’s Carroll said such an undertaking is “not by any means impossible” and is a long overdue financial necessity.

“In the wake of a $1 billion deficit, the longer we wait, the longer we spread our resources too thin,’’ Carroll said.

Former ComEd CEO Frank Clark, chairman of the new Commission on School Utilization, said his group is so independent he didn’t know about Byrd-Bennett’s proposal until he walked into a commission meeting Monday afternoon.

He approved of her plan, calling it the right thing to do, but insisted it doesn’t affect his work.

“It doesn’t impact what we’re doing,” he told the few dozen assembled for the first public hearing of the commission set to recommend how to close and consolidate schools.

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick, Fran Spielman

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