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Hearing officers oppose 10 planned CPS closures, have reservations about others

Hearing officers' reports on proposed CPS school closings
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Updated: June 9, 2013 6:15AM

Much of Mona Conway’s life has centered around Calhoun North Elementary, which is on the Chicago Public Schools closure list.

Her son recently graduated from Calhoun; her 4-year-old niece attends pre-K there, and Conway attended the West Side school decades ago.

So when Conway, a crossing guard, learned Tuesday that an independent hearing officer opposes closing Calhoun, she was overcome with emotion.

“I’m grateful that somebody out there was listening to us — to our views, to our hurt, our frustrations,” said Conway, 44.

Hearing officers appointed to review the school district’s plan to close underutilized schools across the city are opposing 10 of the slated school closures at the end of this school year and have reservations about several others, according to reports released by CPS.

The proposed 10 closures opposed by the independent reviewers — all retired judges — include: Buckingham Special Education Center; Calhoun North; Mahalia Jackson Elementary School; King Elementary School; Manierre Elementary School; Mayo Elementary School; Morgan Elementary School; Overton Elementary School; Williams Elementary School, and Williams Preparatory Academy Middle School. The hearing officers allege that CPS did not follow proper procedure for closing these schools.

Hearing officers question the transition plan, including the safety program, for six of those schools. Hearing officers also recommended that CPS delay closing Stockton Elementary School and Stewart Elementary School until a safety plan is in place. There also were concerns about schools that serve children with special needs.

The hearing officers also expressed serious reservations about the closure of several other schools, including Near North Elementary School; Delano Elementary School; Dumas Technology Academy, and Duprey Elementary School.

CPS said hearing officers either misinterpreted the requirements of state law or exceeded the scope of their authority in issuing their findings.

The school district counted nine oppositions but it counts Williams Elementary and Williams Middle as one school. The Chicago Sun-Times is counting them separately because each has its own principal and staff.

“I’m glad some of the hearing officers showed some independence and saw the issues with CPS putting students into schools that are not better performing and not taking things like special education into account,” said Wendy Katten, director of parent group Raise Your Hand.

In March, CPS announced plans to seek the closing of 54 schools and 61 school buildings. Three hearings were required for each school to be closed: two in the community and one at the Board of Education.

School’s chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement Tuesday, “Hearing officer reports provide information that the Board of Education can use as part of a thorough review before its scheduled vote on May 22.”

In the case of Calhoun, retired Cook County Judge Cheryl Starks argued that the plan didn’t consider Calhoun’s proposed neighborhood development when analyzing the issue of utilization. In its response, CPS said the hearing officer misread the guidelines.

A nearby Chicago Housing Authority development houses 300 children who live in the school’s area. But within the next 18 months, 76 more units will be added, and there are plans to build additional units, according to Stark’s report.

“. . . The CEO failed to consider the projected enrollments based on ‘neighborhood development plans,’ ” she wrote.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), whose ward includes the school, brought up that issue at a hearing.

“I think it’s good the hearing officer listened,” Fioretti said. But he blasted the process and said he’s not optimistic: “Do I have much hope? Not really. I always believed some schools would be taken off the list.”

At Overton, shipping kids to a higher-performing school was at issue. Retired Cook County Judge Carl McCormick argued that when Overton students are welcomed at Mollison Elementary School, they won’t be attending a higher-performance school.

“This is tantamount, using a food metaphor, to the promise of an omelet with a crisp waffle. Then what is actually delivered are broken eggs, whose contents are oozing out and a burnt pancake,” McCormick wrote.

But CPS in its rebuttal said Mollison scored higher on all four performance measures used and is indeed a higher-performing school.

In opposing the closing of Jackson, retired federal Judge David H. Coar wrote in his report that the safety of students in the Auburn-Gresham community was key: “There is no question that Jackson is underutilized. 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.”

In a written response, CPS general counsel James Bebley said Coar “exceeded the scope of his authority.”

Safety is a huge issue at Jackson because opposing gang members attend the welcoming school, Fort Dearborn Elementary School, parents have said. Train tracks down 88th Street mark the divide, parent Joyce Stewart said.

“We have a lot of kids that are saying if they have to cross the tracks to go school, they’re not going to go,” said Stewart, who has three kids at the school.

But Stewart said Coar’s report is good news.

“It gives us a slight relief because [they’re’] saying that we might stay open,” she said, adding that she’s hoping positive thinking will keep her school open. “I know they’re not going to do these kids like this.”

Meanwhile, Falecia Johnson, who stood outside Manierre as she waited to pick up her granddaughter, said she isn’t feeling optimistic.

“I wish it was a realistic chance, but ultimately it’s the mayor who says the school closes. So this one closes,” she said.

Contributing: Brian Slodysko and Mitch Dudek

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