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Judge denies request to keep 10 Chicago schools open

Calhoun North Elementary School its final day after final bell Wednesday June 19 2013. Phoby Peter Holderness~Sun-Times

Calhoun North Elementary School on its final day, after the final bell on Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Photo by Peter Holderness~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 3, 2013 6:58AM

Another legal hurdle to closing a historic number of schools fell Wednesday as a Cook County judge denied a request by parents to keep open 10 of the 50 shuttered Chicago public elementary schools.

The lawsuit, filed by lawyers for the Chicago Teachers Union on behalf of parents and the union, argued that the district ignored the recommendations of independent hearing officers CPS hired who had decided against the closings or expressed serious concerns about them.

But Cook County Judge Thomas R. Allen rejected the request, saying the state Legislature never specified in its single sentence spelling out the role of hearing officers in closings that the hearing officers had binding authority over school closure decisions — and they were very specific about a number of other details.

“The Legislature knows what it’s doing,” said Allen, a former Chicago alderman. “If it wanted to hold a gun to the head of the board, it would have added another sentence” to the 2011 law allowing hearing officers to override the schools chief or Board of Education.

A week after the Board of Education approved the closure of a record 50 schools, the CTU filed the suit on behalf of parents at 10 of them and the union, accusing the district of ignoring the recommendations of independent hearing officers it hired who decided against the closings in most of the cases and expressed concerns about the others.

The schools involved are Buckingham Special Education Center, Calhoun North, Delano Elementary, King Elementary, Mayo Elementary, Morgan Elementary, Overton Elementary, Stewart Elementary, Stockton Elementary, Williams Elementary and Williams Preparatory Academy Middle School.

Representing the Board of Education, lawyer James Franczek argued that school code only let hearing officers make recommendations, not binding decisions.

“What this case boils down to is whether the Board of Education or hearing officers decide whether a school is closed,” he said.

But legislators created the closing process in 2011— and included a review by independent hearing officers — specifically so school closings would be fair and transparent and accountable, CTU attorney Robert Bloch told the judge.

“[The closing process] is like a speeding train heading toward the cliff,” Bloch said afterward. “The hearing officers were intended to apply the brakes.”

Bloch is considering an appeal but acknowledged to the group of parents and teachers assembled in court from Delano, King, Morgan and Williams that time is running out to do so. The first day of class is Aug. 26.

Resigned to the ruling, Williams parent Lillian Allen of Bronzeville said it showed her that hiring the hearing officers, all former judges, was a waste of time and money for everyone involved — the officers included, if the district didn’t have to heed their decisions.

“It felt like a slap in the face to them, too,” Allen said.

CTU president Karen Lewis called the ruling “unfortunate.”

“Sadly, we can always count on CPS to use vagueness in the law to protect its actions in disenfranchising children and families,” Lewis said. “If the law isn’t clear, CPS will find that loophole and exploit it — to the detriment of the children and families it should be trying to protect.

“The district wrote the rules regarding the power given to the hearing officers, and when the officers’ decisions weren’t to their liking, CPS broke its own rules in overturning those decisions and voting to close 50 schools. Under the Illinois School Code, the officers’ ruling should have been final,” Lewis added. “This unfortunate ruling basically upheld CPS going back on its own word, and it does an injustice to the parents of these students.”

In reaction to the ruling, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement: “Today’s ruling affirmed our belief that every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high quality education that prepares them to succeed in life. However, for too long that has not been the case, and children in certain parts of the city have been without the resources and support that they need to succeed in the classroom. Though this process has not been without its pain, we stand committed to working with parents, educators and the community to ensure every child can live up to their potential.”

The parents and others who fought the closings in meetings and at rallies have another legal chance to halt or delay the closings. Two separate class-action cases backed by the CTU and recently heard in federal court still are pending. In the federal suits, they asked Judge John Z. Lee to delay the closures for a year, saying that black and disabled students will be unfairly affected by the closings. He heard a series of witnesses over four days in July and is expected rule sometime in August.

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