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Will ex-judge’s opinion reverse decision to close two CPS schools?

Updated: June 15, 2013 6:36AM

David Coar served 16 years as a federal judge in Chicago, presiding over such important cases as the city patronage abuse trial of Robert Sorich.

That doesn’t make Coar infallible in matters of law or judgment, but it does mean he’s someone to be regarded seriously.

And I took it very seriously last week when Coar, serving as an independent hearing officer to the Board of Education, ruled that proposals to close two schools next year should be denied for failing to specifically address student safety issues involved in the move to a new school.

“The message . . . seems to be ‘trust us, we’ll take care of whatever safety issues arise,’ ” wrote Coar, who left the bench in 2010.

“That approach is at odds with the spirit of real notice and comment and the requirement of a draft transition plan that explains to interested parents, students and the Board what they should expect,” he continued.

It remains to be seen whether the Board of Education will take Coar seriously as well when it votes May 22 on the 53 proposed school closures, but it should.

In addition to Coar, four former Cook County Circuit judges — Bernetta Bush, Paddy McNamara, Cheryl Starks, and Charles Winkler — made similar recommendations against school closings based on safety concerns in cases on which they served as hearing officers.

Chicago Public Schools lawyers responded to each with the same basic response: that the hearing officers exceeded their limited authority under the state’s school closing law, as well as their expertise.

In other words, all of these former judges were incorrect in their interpretation of Illinois law, CPS says. That’s certainly possible, I’m sure. Other hearing officers facing the same safety issues adopted the narrow approach favored by CPS.

But given the stakes, the stance taken by Coar and others should give Board of Education members that much more pause before forging ahead next week with all these closings at once.

I do not question that CPS is taking the security concerns of the students seriously. From every indication, many people are hard at work developing plans to make the switch to a new school go as safely as possible — both inside and outside the schools.

These plans will include everything from the specific “safe passage” routes recommended for children to take to school to the installation of alarms and the number of security guards each school will hire. CPS officials say they have identified sidewalks to be repaired, abandoned buildings to be boarded up and busy crossings to be protected.

Steve Georgas, deputy chief of patrol for the Chicago Police Department, said police have already reviewed the safe passage routes proposed by CPS and made recommendations on how to improve them.

But the fact is those school-specific plans have yet to be shown to the parents whose children will be affected. As Coar suggested, it is impossible under those circumstances for those parents to have confidence their children will be safeguarded.

That’s one of the many unfortunate byproducts of the rush to close so many schools in one fell swoop, which the Chicago Sun-Times editorial page has been articulately arguing against for weeks now.

As you know, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett would argue we cannot afford to delay improving the educational environment for the affected students. And they obviously don’t intend for there to be any significant changes to their plans.

Jadine Chou, chief safety and security officer for CPS, said detailed school safety plans will be presented to parents in upcoming weeks, starting next week, and will continue to be refined through the year.

And CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said school transition plans will be updated to “address all the issues raised in the hearing officer reports that found us not to be compliant with state law, including more specific detail on safety planning.”

In recommending the Board of Education deny the closings of Mahalia Jackson and Garrett Morgan elementary schools, former Judge Coar said he did so “reluctantly.”

Indeed, both schools are underutilized, Coar said.

“However, the safety of the youngest and most vulnerable children in the school system is a very serious thing, not to be addressed with generalities and vague promises,” he said.

I don’t see how that’s a shortcoming that can be cured in the next eight days.

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