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Editorial: Schools CEO is right to reach out to parents

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks Friday Chicago Urban League.  |  Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks Friday at the Chicago Urban League. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 6, 2012 6:09AM

Chicago’s new schools chief did something very wise on Friday.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett spoke honestly and with real conviction about the profound distrust of CPS’ leadership that runs deep in nearly every corner of Chicago. The distrust is so great, she said, that she can’t in good conscience assemble a list of proposed 2013-14 school closures by a state-mandated Dec. 1 deadline.

“The community simply does not trust what we say or do. They simply don’t,” a refreshingly candid Byrd-Bennett told community leaders at the Chicago Urban League on Friday. “We need to build trust.”

The new CEO, just three weeks on the job, wants the state Legislature to push back to March 31 the deadline for naming which schools will close in June, giving the school system time to take a real stab at honestly engaging Chicago’s communities about what should happen to their schools.

The Legislature, which convenes next on Nov. 27, should say yes. The law mandating the Dec. 1 deadline was created precisely for this reason — to give Chicagoans a greater say in the future of the schools.

And, equally important, this is not a dodge.

Byrd-Bennett says she’s committed to begin closing underused schools next summer. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis wants a moratorium on closures, saying an extension is a thoughtful gesture but not enough to fix a deeply flawed process.

But Byrd-Bennett is right to stand firm on closures. Half of all Chicago schools are underused and about 140 are more than half empty, according to CPS figures. The school system, which faces a $1 billion budget deficit next year, cannot afford to keep them open. CPS estimates that each closing will yield $500,000 to $800,000 in annual savings plus saved capital dollars, minus first-year expenses.

The CTU and others don’t think the closure process can be fixed by March 31. There are other legitimate concerns about alerting schools so late about a closure, making it harder for students to find new schools if they don’t like where CPS sends them and for CPS to consolidate schools in an orderly fashion. Given the late start, the school system should seriously consider a smaller number of closures for next year to kick off its long-term closure effort.

Byrd-Bennett is aware of these issues and has charged a nine-member independent commission with considering them all. In the coming months, the commission will lead a community-engagement effort and offer up recommendations to CPS.

In the past, CPS has made its closure recommendations and then engaged the community to get their reaction. Byrd-Bennett’s approach turns that on its head.

To be successful, there are a few key issues the commission must consider: The accuracy of how CPS calculates school utilization; whether school-closure guidelines should cover performance as well as low enrollment (we think it should — the academically weakest under-enrolled schools should be closed first); verify CPS’ estimates of school-closing savings, and how to ensure children and teachers at closed schools successfully transition to new, substantially better schools.

Byrd-Bennett isn’t the first CEO to try to do better. Sporadic attempts to engage communities have been tried in the past but they have had a short lifespan. One promising initiative, “community action councils” that help re-envision schools in struggling neighborhoods, must play a central role over the next few months.

But Byrd-Bennett is the first CEO to hang her tenure on genuine community outreach and to insist on it so openly and with such passion.

“We cannot create a vision for the next generation of Chicago’s children if the community doesn’t not know and understand the vision,” she said.

It’s a only start, of course.

But it’s an excellent start.

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