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Aldermen question CPS ‘right-sizing,’ opening charters in ‘haphazard’ way

Bob Fioretti

Bob Fioretti

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Updated: December 22, 2012 6:38AM

Aldermen upset about the prospect of massive school closings amid an expected charter expansion Tuesday got a lot of reassurances but not as many specifics from Chicago Public School officials.

During a City Council Education Committee hearing, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) charged that the CPS “manufactured’’ its own building utilization “crisis’’ by closing some schools and opening charter schools in a “haphazard’’ way, without a master facility plan.

In his ward , Fioretti said, eight charter schools have moved in, two have moved out, and five neighborhood schools have closed, causing “significant dislocation and emotional distress.’’

One charter recently opened across the street from a neighborhood school that CPS last year had considered solidly performing but half-empty, Fioretti said.

CPS plans to ask the General Assembly to push back the Dec. 1 deadline for producing a school closing target list to March would only create another “crisis,’’ Fioretti said.

It would emerge too late to let kids in closing targets apply to selective enrollment or magnet schools, he said.

Recently retired ComEd CEO Frank Clark, in his latest role of head of a new CPS Commission on School Utilization, was conciliatory, saying, “I don’t think your comments are off the mark. . . . We’ll be in front of the General Assembly and they will make a decision.”

Fioretti tried — without success — to get a committment from CPS that it would not open any more charters, at least in the next year, while it attempts to “right-size” the district. Todd Babbitz, the system’s new chief transformation officer, said he was not in a position to make that commitment. New Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was unable to attend the hearing.

Babbitz said 20 percent of the system’s schools are at less than half of their ideal capacity, and 10 percent are overcrowded.

“There’s a mismatch between where we have students and where we have schools,’’ Babbitz said. Combined with an estimated $1 billion deficit ahead, “We have some tough choices.’’

Babbitz also revealed that about nine charter schools are in the pipeline for a fall opening and other charters have answered the system’s call for “quality school’’ options. Other “quality school’’ applicants may have responded to an option to replicate a quality neighborhood school, he said.

And, Babbitz said, the system is considering extending the selective-enrollment admission deadline to accomodate a later closure timetable.

But more than half a dozen CPS officials were unable to answer some basic questions, such as how much the district expected to save from each school closing, and how much charter schools received per pupil. Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), the Education Committee chair, asked CPS to get back to her with the numbers.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) accused CPS of creating school-closing rules tied to “extremely vague’’ and “subjective” criteria — such as “safety and security,’’ “school leadership” and “school culture.’’

Without more objective measures, she said, the system is inviting “suspicion.’’

Chicago Teachers Union officials say CPS staff should wait another year before resuming school closings to ensure they get their “right-sizing’’ correct.

Meanwhile, the union has attacked CPS’ plans, outlined in a grant proposal, to open up to 60 more charter schools in five years.

“We do not see how you can close 50 schools and open 50 schools at the same time and say it’s an austerity measure,’’ CTU municipal coordinator Joseph McDermott told the Education Committee on Tuesday.

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