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CEO’s school closing plan: Be open

Mayor Rahm Emanuel names BarbarByrd-Bennett new CEO Chicago Public Schools replacing Jean-Claude Brizard during news conference South Loop Elementary School

Mayor Rahm Emanuel names Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools replacing Jean-Claude Brizard during news conference at South Loop Elementary School, 1212 S. Plymouth Court, Friday, October 12, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 1, 2012 4:56PM

The clock is ticking for an untold number of Chicago Public Schools.

Guidelines for school closings will be posted on the CPS website on Wednesday. By Dec. 1, CPS has to send state lawmakers a list of schools it intends to close next year.

But Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the newly minted schools chief, isn’t rushing to grab the ax — despite facing a $1 billion deficit next year.

Having closed schools in other districts, she argues that there’s more than brick and mortar at stake here.

“I need to feel more than comfortable that what they are proposing is first and foremost in the best interest of children,” Byrd-Bennett told me Tuesday.

The school’s chief said she is looking for a “very detailed plan” around what “authentic community engagement” looks like with respect to school closings. However, she also made it clear that “ignoring” underused schools is not an option and she expects to address the issue in the upcoming year.

But with barely 11 days on the job and a process looming that will draw a cast of characters, including aldermen, Byrd-Bennett is right to proceed with caution.

“If I can’t look at all those pieces and feel confident, I am not going to move forward,” she said. “I think that would be a betrayal to everything I’ve said to this community.”

She has said there is no master plan with respect to school closings and that the process will be transparent.

But school closings spark an outcry even when a school is deteriorating and half-empty. Some observers estimate that as many as 120 schools will meet the guidelines for school closings and ultimately bite the dust.

That’s a lot of crying.

But when the school’s chief is new and there’s been a contentious school strike, closing schools brings all the distrust and disappointments a community harbors to the forefront.

As Byrd-Bennett sees it, the December deadline puts the school district between a rock and a hard place.

“If we were talking about a school building and the roof is falling, and it’s leaking and it’s unsafe, and it could accommodate 1,000 children and there are 250 children in the building, it is not a safe environment. Then the question becomes: ‘What do we do with this building? How do we repurpose the building?’ ” she noted.

Figuring all that out takes more than a moment.

Byrd-Bennett described the guidelines as a “big net” that will “catch a whole lot.”

That doesn’t mean that all the schools will be impacted and that’s where community engagement comes in, she said.

“I don’t know everything and even if I was born and bred in Chicago, I still don’t know everything. You’ve got to trust the people in the community; the churches . . . and people that represent the community, not necessarily the people who say they do,” Byrd-Bennett said.

“She pointed to her experience in Cleveland where she also had to close schools. That process always began with giving the community the reason why.

“The second part became what do we do with this building? Do we level it? Do we build homes? Do we build a rec center?

With community input, the shuttered school became a traveling art museum and a place where students from various schools could exhibit their artwork.

Byrd-Bennett noted that in Chicago, the district’s resources are “spread so thin” to ensure that everybody gets a little, which means many of the schools are not getting what they need.

“As a manager, I know that is not the best use of our resources,” she said. “You’ve got to figure out how you refine the resources so you get better distribution.”

Byrd-Bennett apparently is willing to face the fallout for not complying with lawmakers.

“How could I go back to the people I’ve had a conversation with and say well there was a statutory requirement,” she said.

“If I were to do that, I would be doing what I’ve heard people say: ‘You’re not transparent. You are not to be trusted, and essentially you didn’t respect us because you haven’t even heard us and you’ve already got our plan in the desk drawer.’ ”

One thing is certain, how Byrd-Bennett proceeds with respect to this thorny issue will set the tone she will have to live with for the rest of her tenure.

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