Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday July 18th, 2013, 5:06pm

Heated Court Hearings Continue On Lawsuits Filed Against CPS School Closings

An attorney representing the parents who filed two federal lawsuits seeking to halt 50 Chicago schools from closing ripped into a top Chicago Public Schools (CPS) official in charge of special needs services at the start of Thursday’s hearing on the cases.

The two lawsuits, filed against the Chicago Board of Education and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, allege that the district’s school closure plan disproportionately impacts African-American students and will cause great harm to those with special needs. The board voted back in May to close 49 “underutilized” neighborhood elementary schools and one high school. The lawsuits are looking to slow down the closings before the next academic year or stop them all together.

Hearings began Tuesday and will continue through Friday. A decision from Federal Court Judge John Lee on whether the closings will be delayed is expected to come two or three weeks from Friday, Kristine Mayle, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) financial secretary told Progress Illinois in an interview during a break at Thursday’s hearing.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Thomas Geoghegan, pressed the Chicago Board of Education’s first witness Markay Winston, of CPS' Office of Special Education and Supports, on how the school closings will impact Individualized Education Programs (IEP) for students with special needs and whether the closure plan provides an adequate timeline to transition students.

Geoghegan also questioned the CPS administrator’s qualifications as an expert, including what specific academic literature or studies she has read involving school closings, specifically their impact on students with special needs. Winston said she could not recall the names of any specific studies or articles she has studied. 

Under questioning by the plaintiffs' attorney, Winston also said she is not familiar with a popular school closure guide put forth by the Broad Foundation. The organization's document is a “template” used across the country and details best practices for school closures, Mayle told Progress Illinois.

The Broad Foundation's guide says it should take 12 to 18 months to close schools. Mayle said CPS has followed the document “to the letter” during the school closure process except the timeline. Following Winston's testimony, Mayle said it’s hard to believe a high-level CPS official would not be familiar with the well-known document.

“Shouldn’t you look into (the document) before you do something that’s going to affect 5,000 [special needs] kids,” Mayle asked.

When Geoghegan questioned Winston about the 12 to 18 month timeline, she said it “seems reasonable,” but added that it’s hard to “generalize” what would be appropriate for schools.

Questions were also raised about the district’s plan to have instructional minutes for IEPs tweaked for students attending new schools in the fall.  

“I think it’s shocking that people from the board of education would testify that you would change an IEP to meet the setting of the child, not to meet the child’s needs,” Mayle said. “This document is written for the child, and for (Winston) to get up on the stand and say, ‘Yeah we changed the minutes based on the school,’ was kind of shocking to me and the other teachers in the room. They were surprised by that.”

The board’s second witness before a lunch break was Adam Anderson, CPS’ officer of portfolio planning and strategy.

An attorney for the board asked Anderson whether redrawing school boundaries for overcrowded schools so students could attend underutilized ones would have adequately addressed the district's underutilization problem. Anderson responded that redrawing the boundaries was not a "viable strategy" because overcrowded schools tend to be grouped together in a particular neighborhood or an area of the city, and in other places there are clusters of underutlized schools.

Under questioning by an attorney for the plaintiffs, Anderson said CEO Byrd-Bennett never asked him to do research on whether special education students would be hurt as a result of the district's school underutilization standards. And when asked whether there has been any talk among board members about whether the district’s space utilization standards are discriminatory, Anderson said, “We don’t believe they’re discriminatory.” Attorney Robin Potter asked him to answer yes or no, to which he said, "no."

Potter also asked Anderson if he  knew of any analysis by the district that looked at the racial impact of school closings, and he said, “We did not do a racial impact study, no.”

“I’m not overly surprised by it,” Mayle told Progress Illinois following the testimony. “I would think they would try to do their due diligence and at least do a little research on it.”

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