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Black Caucus chair wants mayor to follow hearing officers’ recommendations

Updated: June 15, 2013 6:07AM

The chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus is demanding that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his handpicked school board follow hearing officers recommendations to keep open 13 of 54 Chicago Public Schools targeted for closing.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) argued that ignoring those recommendations — and forging ahead with all 54 closings — would trigger a political backlash and strengthen the Chicago Teachers Union’s case in an expected CTU lawsuit seeking to overturn the closings.

Brookins has a vested interest in urging the mayor to side with the hearing officers. Two schools in his South Side ward on the hit list — Garrett A. Morgan and Mahalia Jackson — would remain open if the Chicago Board of Education follows the hearing officers’ recommendations.

“You set forth a procedure and rules. You had a court reporter there and a former federal judge presiding. To the whole world, this looked to be a legally binding proceeding. To overrule that without some significant justification would render the whole proceeding a joke,” Brookins said.

“It would seem as though they’re overruling their own procedures and trying to come up with the results they wanted all along, instead of playing by the rules they established.”

Brookins served on the school closing commission handpicked by Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett that held an exhaustive set of hearings across the city.

In its interim report, the commission chaired by former ComEd CEO Frank Clark voiced concern about the Emanuel administration’s ability to pull off a massive consolidation of public schools, noting that CPS had never closed more than a dozen schools in any one year.

But the commission did an about-face two months later, concluding in its final report that CPS could safely close or overhaul as many as 80 schools this year.

Brookins noted that former U.S. District Judge David Coar opposed the Mahalia Jackson closing, in large part, because he was not satisfied with how deaf and hearing impaired students would be accommodated.

“If you go before any other judge — whether in state or federal court — they’re gonna look at his ruling as being sound. Judges do not like to overrule other judges. It takes more evidence to say, `This judge made a mistake.’ That’s one of the things they need to weigh,” the alderman said.

Legal issues should not be Emanuel’s only concern. There’s also the potential for a political backlash, Brookins said.

“The drumbeat for an elective school board would get louder. ... This just opens up a wound that, potentially, should be well on its way to healing — the wound of the [teachers] strike and everything else gets pushed back into the forefront,” he said.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the reports will be considered by the Board of Education as they weigh Byrd-Bennett’s recommendations to consolidate underutilized schools leading up to the May 22 vote.

“We respect the role of hearing officers as an important part of this process as we do the feedback of nearly 34,000 members of our school communities whose feedback helped guide our work,” she said.

Meanwhile, the retired judges did not mince their words as they questioned school closings, they warned, could endanger some students, fail to put others in a better school, as the mayor has promised, and ignore the needs of special education students.

Emanuel responded by saying he “appreciates their work” and “appreciates the 20,000 people who showed up” at the exhaustive set of CPS hearings.

But he made no promises to follow their recommendations. In fact, the mayor hinted strongly that the recommendations would not be followed.

“The board will take what they’ve said [and] work through it, but do what we need to do as a city because this … has been deferred through the years,” said Emanuel of the politically volatile issue of school closings.

The mayor reiterated that the time for compromising is over and the time for implementation is here.

“A lot of people put a lot of time into it. I appreciate that work. ... I’m sure the board will read it. Simultaneously, we’re now getting ready to start to fix up the receiving schools, which had never gotten that before,” the mayor said.

“Steve Georgas who ran the security operations in preparation for NATO, is reviewing and updating and working on every one of the 54 safe passage plans. Barbara [Byrd-Bennett, schools CEO] and the schools are working on the cultural, academic and educational needs and commitments we’ve made. So everybody is participating.”

Emanuel bristled when told that some impacted parents believe the mayor will have “blood on his hands” if even one displaced student gets hurt on his or her way to a new school.

“Whenever anybody is hurt in the city, I have a responsibility — regardless of whether I did anything here or not,” the mayor said.

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