Endgame: school-closure hearings

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administration is currently holding public hearings around its plan to close and consolidate over 50 schools this year. Many Chicago residents might wonder what distinguishes these meetings from those that came before, and what they're meant to accomplish. Our staff reporter Dave Glowacz provides some Q&A that digs into it.

CPS has held lots of public meetings over the past few months, right?

Yes. CPS says there've been over 150.

Why so many?

CPS has had several groups of public meetings. First, when it formed the eight-member Commission on School Utilization last year, the commission held meetings around the city at which it invited the public to argue for the schools in their area.

Isn't that like asking folks to throw everything against the wall, then see what sticks?

That's one way to look at it. The commission held its meetings pretty much in November and December of last year. And then in January CPS announced that it would hold another group of public meetings, two of them in each of its elementary school networks across the city.

How was the second group of meetings different from the first?

Just before starting the second group of meetings, CPS identified some types of schools it wouldn't close. For example, it said it wouldn't close any high schools, or high-performing elementary schools.

What constitutes "high performing"?

CPS categorizes the schools in three levels, level 1 being the highest performing based on criteria like test scores.

So, who showed up to the second group of meetings?

People associated with schools that had not yet dodged the bullet.

Schools that CPS had not said it wouldn't close?

Right. So these meetings became exercises in people saying, "Here's why our school should not be on whatever closure list CPS comes up with." Then, about two weeks into January, CPS dropped the first bomb: the list of 129 schools it was definitely considering for closure.

Meanwhile, the second group of meetings was still going on?

That's right. Those went on till early March. So now, you had people specifically associated with those 129 schools showing up to the public meetings, arguing against CPS's criteria for putting those schools on the list, and, basically, begging CPS not to close their schools.

You have an audio report on those meetings, correct?

Yup, at this link.

What happened next?

In March, CPS announced the final list of 54 schools that it's proposing to the Board of Education that it close. At that point, a state law—called 105 ILCS 5/34-230—kicked in.

Might one assume that it's rather verbose?

It is.

Will you give us the short-attention-span version?

The law basically states that if CPS closes or consolidates a school, it must provide three opportunities to comment on that closure. Two of the three can be public meetings near the school's community. The law says that the third opportunity for public comment must be a formal hearing that's conducted by an impartial hearing officer.

So each school threatened with closure gets two community meetings and one formal hearing?


If the law required this latest group of two meetings and one hearing per school, why did CPS bother to hold the earlier group of public meetings?

I think there're a couple of things going on. First, I think many have criticized CPS in the past for not getting community input—for example, when CPS sets policy or when it's closed schools. When the current CPS head, Barbara-Byrd Bennett, came on board, she said that CPS would correct this. Second, I think that someone in the administration—be it the mayor, or Bennett—decided early on to close a lot of schools as a way, ostensibly, to save money.

How do you close a lot of schools?

One way is to say that you're gonna close many, many, many schools—cast a really wide net—then have a public-input process through which you justify whittling the many, many schools down to . . . just a lot of schools.

What about the hearings going on now?

CPS has held the community-based meetings up till Monday April 15, and on Tuesday April 16 it started the hearings at CPS headquarters. It's doing a half-dozen hearings per evening, and it does several at one time in different meeting rooms, twice in an evening.

Would you say they're cranking them out?

Looks that way. Each hearing is two hours long, and it's presided over by the hearing officer, who's generally a retired court judge. The hearing starts with CPS and Board of Education staff reading into the record their evidence for why the school is being closed or consolidated.

What's the evidence?

It seems to be a pretty well-scripted recitation of the rationale for the closures that CPS has offered in its press releases and public interviews to date.

You mean the underutilization figures, where kids from closed schools will end up . . . stuff like that?


Can you tell about a hearing for a particular school?

I attended one of the first, for Jesse Owens Elementary Community Academy, a pre-K through 3rd grade school at 124th and State Street. CPS proposes to close Owens and move its students into Samuel Gompers Fine Arts Options Elementary School at 123rd and State. Owens has, according to CPS, around 330 students, 98 percent of whom are black. And I'd say about 100 people attended the hearing, a mix of school staff, teachers, students—I counted 15 or 20 kids—and community members. (See the photo below).

How did it start?

The state law is pretty specific about the procedure CPS has to follow to close a school; the law lays out things like the timing and types of community involvement and public notices, and the timing and contents of transition plans. So the hearing began with several Board of Ed and CPS staff presenting exhaustive evidence showing that it's complied completely with the law.

They don't read all of that out loud, do they?

They read some of it. The rest they submit to the hearing officer in a moderately thick binder—which, interestingly, is not available anywhere but at the hearing.

CPS doesn't give the binder to the school ahead of time?

No. The Board of Ed attorney put a copy on a lecturn, and said anyone could come up and look at it while the hearing progressed.

Is that odd?

I wanna be clear: Some of the information in the binder, like the school utilization calculations, has been and continues to be available on the CPS Web site. But all the information that CPS submitted to the hearing officer is not available in any one place except in that binder, which CPS did not give to the schools.

Then how does the school get to see it?

I asked a CPS press person, and she said the school would have to make a Freedom of Information Act request to CPS.

Who else spoke after the administration staff?

The hearing officer opened the floor for public comments—which, consistent with other CPS meetings, were limited to two minutes each. At that point, a fairly well-prepared string of Owens teachers, staff, parents, school council members, students and other supporters all testified as to why CPS shouldn't close the school.

What were their arguments?

Some contested CPS's fundamental criterion for putting a school on the closure list to begin with—namely, that the school is underutilized. (Hear a sample clip below.)

What else?

Some cited the poor academic performance of the "welcoming school" to which the Owens students would go—saying that this belied CPS's pledge to move all of a closed school's students to one that performs as well or better than the closed school.

Anything new about this?

Not generally. I've repeatedly heard that CPS's criteria for closing the school are wrong; that CPS applied the criteria incorrectly; that the learning at a threatened school had steadily improved; that the school had made big investments in its infrastructure; and, last but not least, how important a threatened school has been to members of the community for generations.

What's your impression of this process?

What strikes me is that CPS is devoting a huge amount of resources to this public meeting and hearing effort. I mean, at minimum you have at least seven staff people, security officers, a sign-language interpreter, a Spanish interpreter, for 54 schools times three—that's 162 meetings. Plus the preparation for each one, and the subsequent reporting that CPS has to do. And the hearing officers. And the hearing stenographer. Plus the time that the school staffs clearly have spent preparing for these things.

All of which is required by state law, right?

Yes. But CPS wouldn't be even be holding these meetings if it hadn't decided to close and consolidate all those schools. So I question, in such a resource-strapped system, why CPS can't reallocate those resources to supporting schools rather than closing them.

So what happens next?

After each hearing, the hearing officer is supposed take all the evidence presented and issue a report to the Board of Ed that does two things: one, summarize the hearing, and two, determine whether CPS has adhered to the law's requirements for the school closing procedure.

Does that latter one seem like a slam-dunk?

I think that's a safe bet.

Where does it all end?

We expect that at its May meeting the Board will vote to finalize the list of schools to be closed and consolidated.

Audio: Testimony of Owens teacher Phyllis Whitman (1 min.)