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Editorial: CPS must come clean on school closings

The crowd cheers as Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis speaks teachers rally UniPark Chicago Ill. Saturday September 15 2012. |

The crowd cheers as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks at a teachers rally at Union Park in Chicago, Ill., on Saturday, September 15, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 21, 2012 2:41PM



There are endless reasons why Chicago teachers say they went on strike.

Pay, charter school growth, unfair evaluations, teacher recall, the over-use of standardized tests, the “privatization” of public education, poor teaching and learning conditions, anger toward Mayor Rahm Emanuel and on and on.

But for many a Chicago teacher, no reason was more pressing than the prospect of mass school closings in this city. On Sunday, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis named the elephant in the room.

The issue of school closings “undergirds just about everything,” Lewis said Sunday after announcing that union delegates needed more time to study the contract before voting to end the strike. “There is no trust . . . of the board of education.”

Lewis said 200 schools are on the chopping block. This is back-of-the-envelope math based on estimates that Chicago has as many as 100,000 empty seats in the Chicago Public Schools.

The Sun-Times has reported rumors of as many as 100 school closings, while the Chicago Tribune cites sources saying 80 to 120 schools will be targeted on the South and West Sides, which have seen significant population declines. City and schools officials adamantly deny these estimates, but refuse to offer a firm number. CPS’ spokeswoman says the scope and timing is still being hammered out.

But everyone knows schools must be closed in large numbers. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

For a decade, CPS has talked about closing schools with low enrollment. CPS’ latest estimate, which needs to be independently verified, is that 50 percent of 662 Chicago schools are under-used.

Some schools have been shuttered in recent years, but the hard work of closing large numbers has continually been put off.

Until now. With CPS looking at an estimated $1 billion deficit next year and a $1.3 billion deficit the year after, tomorrow has arrived.

Lewis says the closings pave the way for more charter school openings, which she strongly opposes. We agree that large numbers of new charters may not be prudent during these tough fiscal times. Lewis cites estimates by CPS and charter operators of plans for 60 more charters over the next five years. That is roughly the rate of charter openings over the last five years.

But CPS Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley told us Wednesday that new charters will generally not be opened in closed public school buildings.

“To generate real savings, we have to close those buildings for good,” Cawley said. The goal, he said, is to reduce the total number of seats in the school system. To do that, CPS will avoid opening charters in neighborhoods expected to see a lot of closures.

Each closing, Cawley said, could save $500,000 to $800,000 a year, minus expenses in the first year. That doesn’t include savings to be generated by avoiding capital repairs on many of these aging buildings.

We’ll need more than Cawley’s word, of course.

The district is required by law to release a 10-year master facilities plan by January. Cawley said CPS hopes to get it out earlier, hopefully by Dec. 1, when CPS will announce its latest proposed round of closures. That way, he said, next year’s closures can be put in a larger context.

It should go without saying that the more open and inclusive CPS is as it heads down this difficult road, the better.

But history tells us we will need to say it out loud, again and again.



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