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Tempers flare, insults fly over Chicago public school closings

Updated: March 11, 2012 8:47AM

Tempers flared and insults flew Thursday as opposing sides on the school closing issue held dueling news conferences in the lobby of Chicago Board of Education headquarters.

Local School Council members who had planned an 11 a,m. news conference about a new suit seeking to block proposed school shakeups loudly chanted over the tail-end of a 10:45 am ministers’ news conference when the clergys’ message ran into the LSC members’ time slot.

“We are the people who save our schools,’’ LSC members yelled repeatedly as ministers tried to explain their new report demanding “bold action’’ against what they called an “epidemic” of “failing schools.’’ From there, things disintegrated even further.

LSC member Tommy Anderson of Stagg Elementary called the ministers “a bunch of liars” and “phony preachers.” He questioned how many of them had received Chicago Public School contracts and said, “I’m here to fight for my kids. I am not paid by CPS.”

Commenting on the mayhem, Rev. Ira Acree of the Greater St. John Bible Church told reporters: “See the results when you don’t educate people properly.”

The LSC suit contends that 17 school closings, phase-outs and turnarounds up for a Feb. 22 school board vote are illegal because CPS failed to provide legally required budgets and directions for improvement to those schools’ LSCs while the schools were on academic probation.

In addition, the suit charged that proposed school shakeups violate the Illinois Civil Rights Act by disproportionately affecting African American students who comprise 82 percent of the students impacted but only 45 percent of all CPS students.

Responded one CPS official by email Thursday: “We have complied with the school code and provided support to these low-performing schools over multiple years to boost improvement. Unfortunately, these schools have not improved or have gotten worse.’’

LSC members — all charged with hiring and firing principals and approving school budgets — expressed outrage Thursday that CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley has stated that if there’s “a chance’’ that a school might close in “five or 10 years,’’ CPS will stop putting physical improvements into its building.

But once schools are approved for shakeups, CPS officials say, they can receive a windfall of new academic and physical improvements to accelerate their “fresh starts’’ — which in many cases have been contracted out to the Academy for Urban School Leadership, where Cawley once worked.

The practice in effect starves neighborhood schools, controlled by LSCs, until they “degrade’’ to the point that they are eligible for shakeups and “privatization,’’ which then strips them of their LSCs, said Dyett High School LSC member Jitu Brown.

Though on probation, Herzl Elementary has struggled with so few books, it must Xerox some to have enough copies, said Herzl LSC member Pat Bell. The school’s one or two computers per classroom are malfunctioning or non-functioning, she said.

Water pools on the floor of the bathooms, the ancient heating system pours out heat even in warm weather and the roof leaks so bad, third-floor classrooms have been shuttered, Bell said.

Yet during her four years on the LSC, Bell said, the LSC has never received specific suggestions from CPS officials on how to lift their school out of probation. Its cries for building repairs went unheeded until Herzl became a turnaround target, Bell said. And even though the school’s test passing rate jumped 10 percentage points last year, LSC members were told “it’s not enough’’ and the Academy for Urban School Leadership would be sent in as overseers, she said.

“I live down the street,’’ Bell said. “You go here, [and a school] is on probation. You go there; they’re on probation. It doesn’t make sense. If you can’t fix it, give it to us.’’

Earlier Thursday, in the same CPS lobby, about a dozen ministers charged that data they pulled from the CPS website showed 93,000 elementary students and 55,000 high school students were in “failing schools” — or those categorized by CPS as “level 3” due to low test scores or poor gains.

“Failing schools” are “spreading like a plague, like a cancer,’’ Rev. Acree said. “Doing nothing is a potential death sentence for our children.”

The preachers demanded “bold action,’’ but were vague on what exactly they favored. Finally, asked if they supported CPS proposed closures and turnarounds, some ministers standing away from the microphone yelled “No!”

However, Acree then stepped up to the microphone to clarify, saying “nobody wants to close schools” but given the “status quo ... sometimes turnarounds, closures may be considered. . . . We’re not opposed to that.’’

Included in the group of ministers was a representative of Pastors United for Change, whose founder, Roosevelt Watkins III, triggered an uproar after he organized busloads of protestors to show up at school closing hearings. So-called “rent-a-protestors” said they were paid at least $25 a head to hold up signs supporting closings or to speak on the issue. Watkins has said protestors were paid “stipends” for “community training” before the hearings.

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