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Barbara Byrd-Bennett: Don’t throw dollars at underused schools

Updated: March 21, 2013 6:28AM

Reading through hundreds of pages of feedback from school communities over the last few weeks around our work to address the district’s utilization crisis has been a humbling and enlightening experience.

More than 12,000 parents, students, teachers and other community members have provided feedback during meetings in each of our CPS School Networks. Over the next two weeks we expect even greater participation in this process — a process I fought for and believe is imperative to give our communities the respect and voice they deserve.

As a former principal and teacher, I’ve lived through school closings. They are never easy, no matter the city or district. But I have never felt more certain in my 40 years as an educator that we need to take action now here in Chicago. The longer we put off these difficult decisions, the more our children will suffer for our inaction.

Our city has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it did a decade ago, and today half of our schools are underutilized. We can’t afford to keep throwing money at partly used buildings to keep them clean, safe, lighted, heated and air-conditioned. Instead, we can combine those resources into other schools and give all children more access to libraries, computers and iPads, playgrounds, nurses and counselors.

No one can disagree that taxpayer dollars would be better spent on student learning than on operating underused buildings — especially as CPS faces a $1 billion deficit next fiscal year. I have heard it suggested that our utilization crisis isn’t “real.” I have visited schools throughout our district — for me seeing is believing. I’ve seen the data and have spoken with countless principals and educators about the challenges they face in underutilized schools. Nothing is more real than this crisis, especially for school leaders and their teachers.

This crisis is real to the principals making tough choices every day about how to provide their students with the tools they need to succeed with limited resources. It is real to the teachers who have to teach multiple grades in one classroom because there aren’t enough children to fill two. And it is real to the children who go without access to the proper intervention and support services they need to be healthy and successful.

That’s why we need to have our communities engaged as authentic partners in this work. So far, we’ve removed 201 of 330 underutilized schools from potential closure based on community input. We will continue listening because our work is far from complete, and I expect to remove more schools from consideration. And, since safety is a top priority, I will not close a school if we cannot ensure those children will be safe. I also will not close a school if we cannot guarantee that every child will have an option to attend a higher-performing school.

Children need a team of adults behind them in order to be successful. I cannot and will not make these decisions alone, and I urge parents and our communities to participate in their next school network meeting. I am convinced that this process will bring forth the best recommendations possible. And I am equally convinced that we must do this work — and do so this year — to do what it best for our children and their learning and give them an opportunity at a fresh start.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett is CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

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