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Editorial: Close what schools? Listen to the judges

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett takes questions with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  |  M. Spencer Green~AP

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett takes questions with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | M. Spencer Green~AP

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Updated: June 9, 2013 6:25AM

Members of the Chicago Board of Education have a lot to chew over before they vote in two short weeks on a record 53 proposed elementary school closures.

And, if they want to do right by Chicago’s students, some serious swallowing also is in order.

On Tuesday, independent hearing officers issued reports opposing 10 of the 53 closures. The officers, all retired judges, also expressed serious reservations about a number of other proposed closures and one co-location. The 53 schools, all considered under-enrolled, will be folded into 55 schools, affecting 30,000 children.

The hearing officer reports hit on key issues that parents, advocates and this page have been raising for months, including safety concerns, doubts that all “welcoming schools” are truly higher performing and a building use formula that packs students into schools and doesn’t adequately account for special needs students. A sampling:

♦ King into Jensen: Community members “provided data indicating that proposed route to Jensen from King is plagued with high safety risks,” including “a high concentration of convicted sex offenders,” a “homeless shelter where more than 100 homeless men loiter” and gang rivalries.

♦ Jackson into Fort Dearborn: “Parents spoke of gang violence, including a fatal confrontation and a beating with a baseball bat.” And: “There is underutilization at Jackson but my reading of the utilization standards leaves me convinced that the formula . . . is not appropriate for a school in which 20 percent of the students have special needs.”

♦ Overton into Mollison: “If the concept of a higher-performing school is to have substantive meaning, the mere fact of a mathematical variance between two schools with low academic performance and on probation is insufficient to be deemed a higher-performing school.”

We’ve repeatedly said that 53 closures (plus 18 other school shake-ups) is simply too many for CPS to pull off this summer. Unless, that is, CPS is willing to make serious mistakes — mistakes in closing some schools unjustly and logistical mistakes as it tries to pull off the nearly impossible task of merging more than 100 schools.

Close schools, we’ve long said, unlike the teachers union, which would have no closures. But do it right and with the least pain possible.

The closings, it must be noted, won’t even add up to substantial savings. CPS needs money, that’s not in doubt. But closure savings are relatively modest and grew even more so last week. Initially, CPS projected $560 million in avoided capital costs over the next decade. Last week, that estimate was lowered to $438 million, the difference resulting from outdated building survey use.

CPS’ lawyers downplayed the 10 instances where the officers opposed a closure, accusing those hearing officers of exceeding their authority. CPS is correct about the hearing officers’ limited mandate: Did CPS file the correct notices, follow guidelines and adhere to the law? If CPS does that, the officer is supposed to deem the school system compliant and sign off on a proposed closure. And, to be fair, many officers critiqued CPS for its draft safety and transition plans for individual schools, which are generic, when CPS made clear all along that final, detailed plans would be released after the May 22 vote. A closer look at the 10, plus the others where officers raised concerns, is required before deciding all should be spared.

Technically speaking, personal opinion is not supposed to creep into these reports. But it clearly has.

As it should.

We only wish more officers had stuck their necks out. Two closures we strongly oppose — Lafayette and Garvey — may meet the legal requirements, even if their closures would cause more harm than good.

These judges listened to the evidence and then rendered clear-eyed opinions.

They should not be ignored.

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