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Legislative panels advance CPS bid for more time on school-closing list

Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks City Club Chicago lunch Maggiano's Banquets. File photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at the City Club of Chicago lunch at Maggiano's Banquets. File photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 29, 2012 6:34AM

SPRINGFIELD — Despite an outcry from community activists, a plan to give Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett four more months to draw up a school-closing list unanimously advanced in both the House and Senate Tuesday.

Even with that movement, an influential Senate Democrat and six Chicago aldermen appeared ready to break ranks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration on the issue by insisting that the extra time sought is still “too short” for parents and faculty to react to possible fall 2013 school closures and that mothballing any schools should be phased in over a lengthier period.

“This time frame is too short because you have to discuss issues like this with our families,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.

“I want you to understand wholeheartedly a phase-in should happen, and I just don’t think it’s adequate time,” Lightford told Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), the lead Senate sponsor of the school-closure legislation.

Lightford’s concerns were echoed Tuesday in a letter to state lawmakers signed by Ald. Rick Munoz (22nd), Ald. John Arena (45th), Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th).

The aldermen said the closure process timetable is “too rapid,” that the city school system “has no master plan for utilizing its facilities and the system Byrd-Bennett now heads has engaged in “haphazard planning” that led to the “so-called underutilization crisis.”

Byrd-Bennett shuttled between House and Senate committees, pitching lawmakers on the need for an extension of a Saturday state deadline to produce a list of schools that will be closed because they’re underutilized. The school system wants until March 31 to produce that list.

“We’ll have more opportunity for community participation at the front end of the conversation and not the back end,” Byrd-Bennett told the House Executive Committee, which voted 11-0 to position the measure allowing that extension for a full House vote.

Byrd-Bennett insisted that whatever schools are mothballed, the vacant buildings won’t be made available to charter schools and reiterated she does not have any sense of how many buildings actually will wind up being closed.

“There is no number,” she told the Senate Education Committee, which moved identical legislation to the Senate floor on a 10-0 vote.

Her testimony was met by an outcry from community activists and Chicago Teachers Union members, whose boos and catcalls prompted state Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), chairman of the House panel, to threaten to close down Tuesday’s hearing.

The opponents condemned the possibility of mass school closures next September, demanded more input in determining which schools might close and expressed anger at the lack of specifics Byrd-Bennett provided.

“How can you take a vote when they haven’t answered the basic questions of what they’re going to do, which makes me angry?” said Joseph McDermott, the CTU’s high school member coordinator and municipal political coordinator.

“This is not right,” McDermott said, pounding his fist on the committee hearing table. “We’re not going to write a blank check to our leader. You’ve gotta respect us and do it right.”

On a busy legislative day, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) put their clout behind a plan to require publicly-traded companies in Illinois to disclose how much they’re paying to the state in corporate income taxes, a move that is drawing sharp opposition from business groups.

“We’ve had corporations come to us and ask for tax breaks, and we’ve given them tax breaks. But we’re doing so in a vacuum, not knowing what other companies are paying,” Cullerton said. “So that’s why we’re specifically addressing this concern in that bill.”

Under the measure, publicly traded corporations that are headquartered in Illinois or do business here would have to disclose how much in corporate income taxes they pay to the state. That information would be turned over to the secretary of state, who would post it on the Internet two years after its disclosure.

A leading business group said such tax information could give competitors unfair advantages and challenged state lawmakers to adhere to the same level of “transparency” they’re trying to inflict on the business community.

“If transparency is a good idea, why don’t legislators, for example, have to disclose? If it’s such a great idea, maybe start with the General Assembly first,” said Mark Denzler, chief operating officer for the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

In other action, a House committee advanced a measure setting April 9 as the date for a special election in the 2nd Congressional District to replace resigned U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).

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