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Committee: CPS can close or consolidate 80 schools at most

Frank Clark leads school utilizatimeeting November | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Frank Clark leads a school utilization meeting in November | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 7, 2013 7:19AM

The independent commission tasked with figuring out how to close schools released its final recommendations Wednesday afternoon, saying Chicago Public Schools has the capacity to deal with a maximum of 80 schools this year, whether by closing, consolidating or turning them around for academic performance.

Details, after some four months of study and lengthy public hearings, remained sketchy.

In the end, the utilization commission made no recommendations of how many schools the district could or should close. And it based the number 80 it believes CPS could handle on how many available seats exist in “better-performing schools” — 25,000.

“There’s no reason to close schools unless they’re going to put kids into a better educational environment,” said Chairman Frank Clark, the former ComEd CEO and mayoral appointee to McPier, though he acknowledged that not every neighborhood has high-performing schools.

The commission also said that how full a school is, which CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett singled out this year as the basis for closures, shouldn’t be the sole factor in any closing decisions because it “ignores the reality of what actually happens in individual schools,” Clark explained.

And the commission advised Byrd-Bennett to complete the closures either in one year or over two years, to allow residents to figure out what to do with vacated buildings, and to “spend the money to do it right.”

“Moving students safely and effectively is neither easy nor inexpensive, but it can be done,” the commission wrote. It could not estimate the costs.

Byrd-Bennett appointed the commission in November, saying she needed help gathering community information about how best to close schools. The CEO says she has 100,000 more seats than children in Chicago’s school buildings and must “right-size” the district dealing with what she estimates is a $1 billion budget deficit.

Using some of their interim recommendations to spare high schools and high performing schools, she generated a list of 129 elementary schools so far that potentially may be closed.

Byrd-Bennett has until March 31 to announce her final decision. She may take or leave these latest recommendations.

“We must focus our limited resources on ensuring every child in every neighborhood receives a high quality education in every school,” Byrd-Bennett said in an emailed statement Wednesday night.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis denounced the entire closing process as “an illusion.”

“It’s going to cost more money to close schools,” she said. “There’s no clear win for kids here. It doesn’t seem like this is really cogent piece of work.”

Jeanne Marie Olson, a researcher at Northwestern University who raises questions about the CPS’ school capacity formula, said she was disappointed the commission didn’t address choices schools have to make between small class size and having art and music rooms.

How odd, she said, that while parents’ interest in good neighborhood schools is growing, CPS and the mayor want “to set the clock back on all this progress and risk the departure of more families from Chicago.”

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