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Editorial: Close schools over two years, not one

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 9, 2013 11:40AM

The head of the Chicago Public Schools got the blessing this week to close as many as 70 schools by June, the nod coming from an independent panel she convened to help her decide how many under-used schools CPS could responsibly shutter.

If this is where CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is headed — shuttering schools and relocating roughly 24,000 students this summer — she’s making a mistake.

That is too many closings to pull off by June. CPS is a dysfunctional bureaucracy even on its best day. We seriously doubt whether it can do this safely and humanely.

Instead, CPS should spread out the closures, doing it in two rounds, this June and in June 2014.

This is our view, based on years watching CPS blunder much smaller rounds of school consolidations. It’s also the view of school officials across the country. A 2009 school closure guide by the Broad Foundation, to which 10 urban districts contributed, concluded that the process for picking and closing schools should take 12 to 18 months, not the shorter process here. In districts “where the process has been rushed to completion in less than 12 months, many districts observed more confusion, community discord and otherwise avoidable mistakes,” the report concluded.

We tread cautiously here, knowing that CPS has invested time and talent like never before into seeking genuine community input to inform its decisions, as well as in developing carefully crafted transition and safety plans for consolidating schools. Those plans clearly impressed Byrd-Bennett’s utilization panel, helping to shape its conclusion that CPS could close up to 70 schools.

We also strongly support CPS’ long overdue effort to close half-used schools. CPS is reacting to population loss, declining enrollment in neighborhood schools and, to a lesser degree, charter school growth, mostly in black areas. The Sun-Times reported Wednesday that 117 of the 129 schools on a preliminary closure list are majority black. That is largely a reflection of population changes in those areas, nothing more, nothing less.

Our call to spread the closures over the next year is in no way another excuse for inaction. It’s a call for sanity.

To do this well, Byrd-Bennett would announce by March 31 a closure list for June, one that is considerably smaller than 70, and put off next year’s closure decisions until well into the 2013-14 school year. That delay is meant to help avoid putting schools in limbo. Telling a school today that it will close in 15 months is profoundly unfair and will cause parents and staff to flee.

Spreading out the closures protects students, teachers and families, and the school system will learn from the inevitable mistakes made in round one. It also gives CPS more time to make sure it’s closing the right schools. Given problems with the formula CPS uses to label a school as underused, it makes sense to target for closure the most acutely underused schools, those that are below 60 percent capacity. In many poor communities, those small, tight-knit schools can be a real gift.

We’ve weighed the benefits of mass closures this June and concluded they don’t outweigh the harm the closures could cause.

We say this despite the appeal of ripping off the band-aid, as well as CPS’ aggressive sales job on the benefits. The promise of big savings will likely prove illusory, as a national review by the Pew Charitable Trusts of closings in other cities has shown. Meanwhile, CPS has promised to transfer students only to higher-performing schools. The odds of that truly happening improve when you aren’t juggling 24,000 kids.

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