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School closing panel to advise 20-schools-a-year limit, source says

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett

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Updated: March 1, 2013 7:58PM

The commission handpicked to oversee Chicago Public School closings is leaning strongly toward recommending that no more than 20 schools be closed in any one year to give students, parents, teachers and bureaucrats an opportunity to adjust to the upheaval, sources said Monday.

“They haven’t demonstrated to us that they can close 100 or even 50 schools. They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that in such a short time-frame. When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster,” said a source close to the commission.

“Our initial talk was that a recommendation go out that CPS close no more than 20 schools in an given year. It’s still fluid. But, something to that effect is the way it’s going to be. Twenty-at-a-time would be less chaotic and give parents more time to prepare instead of scrambling to find alternatives this late in the year.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett have made clear their desire to get the political pain over with in one fell-swoop — kind of like removing a Band-Aid.

In fact, after convincing the Illinois General Assembly to push back the deadline for releasing a list of school closings until March 31, they agreed not to close any more schools for five years.

But, that political argument is unlikely to convince the School Closing Commission to go along with massive closings, the commission source said.

“We’re afraid come September of next year, a lot of people won’t know where to go to school. Parents will be angry and funding potentially could be jeopardized because [so many] kids aren’t there,” the informant said.

The commission source noted that there is “no urgency” to close 100 schools at once, since the long-awaited consolidation would save money over time, not immediately. CPS estimated each closed school would save $500,000 to $800,000.

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment about the 20-schools-a-year limit. City Hall sources said a gradual phase-in over two or three years was a possibility, but that five years was probably too long a time-frame for a wildly-unpopular decision that’s been put off for a decade.

Last week, the mayor appeared to be in no mood to go slow.

“We know the size of our problem. We know the amount of time it’s been deferred and delayed in being dealt with. And we know this is the year to finally step up and deal with it,” Emanuel said.

Earlier this month, Byrd-Bennett said she would not close any high schools or any high-performing elementary schools come June.

Accepting some of the recommendations made by the commission she handpicked to listen to the public, Byrd-Bennett asked for more time to dig into additional recommendations, such as sparing schools that have more than 600 students, schools that are close to the district’s definition of efficient, and schools that are “on the rise.”

Her decision left 193 schools on a potential hit list.

Byrd-Bennett has said she must close and consolidate some schools by year’s end to “right size” the district that has lost significant population since the 2000 census, though she has yet to specify how many. Despite costs of shuttering buildings and moving children, the CEO has maintained that the consolidations will permit money spent on heat and electricity in under-enrolled buildings to go to classroom instruction.

“Right now the status quo is stretching out limited resources too thin,” CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said. “Until we’ve engaged the community over the next several weeks and taken into consideration any additional recommendations from the commission, we won’t know what schools remain on the table.

“We have a daunting utilization crisis that threatens everything in our system,” she said.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been calling for a moratorium of all school closings until the district studies what happened to children displaced in past actions.

“It’s still more than we want but the truth of the matter is that’s a direct result of popular pressure,” said CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey. “They have to recognize the reality that CPS doesn’t have the capacity to close any more schools without it being a train wreck.

“I think the commission is responding to the pressure.”

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