PI Original Ashlee Rezin Wednesday April 3rd, 2013, 8:22pm

Debate On CPS School Closures Heats Up At Chicago Board Of Education Meeting (VIDEO)

There was no shortage of heated words today at the Chicago Board of Education’s monthly meeting as Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett presented her final school closure plan. Parents, teachers and activists all urged board members to consider the consequences the school actions will likely have on Chicago's communities.

There was no shortage of heated words today at the Chicago Board of Education’s monthly meeting as Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett presented her final school closure plan. Parents, teachers and activists all urged board members to consider the consequences the school actions will likely have on Chicago's communities.

Byrd-Bennett's list of 54 school closures, 11 consolidations and six turnarounds was released last month. The Board of Education has until late May to take a final vote.

Saying “every voice matters in ensuring a high-quality education for our students”, Byrd-Bennett said her recommendations came from the feedback of more than 20,000 CPS parents, students, teachers, principals and community members at 34 public meetings. The next round of community hearings on the closure plan is slated to begin Saturday.

“These proposals have caused community anguish, and I understand that,” Byrd-Bennett said at today's meeting. “Change is really hard, change is frightening, and we all get really uncomfortable when the status quo, even a part of the status quo, is changed. But when the status quo isn’t working, change is inevitable.”

Byrd-Bennett’s closure plan is an effort to “right size” an “underutilized and under-resourced” district, according to CPS, that reportedly has a $1 billion budget deficit and more than 100,000 empty seats. CPS officials say the massive wave of school actions will save the district some $560 million over the next decade.

But during the two-hour public participation portion of the meeting, an abundance of parents, teachers and activists spoke out against the impending school closures and questioned its ability to save money.

“These school closings are going to hurt the educational quality in this city,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), in an interview with Progress Illinois. “This is not an educator’s plan, this is not a plan which has been thought out thoroughly with the best interests of schools in mind.”

Here, Sharkey speaks to the Chicago Board of Education:

The Chicago Teachers Union also had representatives, including Stacy Davis Gates, political activities director, advocating against school closures during an Education Committee hearing at City Hall today. The hearing was scheduled at the same time as today’s Board of Education meeting.

“We are not drilling down on best practices. We are moving at warp speed with people who deserve our best work,” Davis Gates said during the meeting, according to CBS.

When Davis Gates was questioned by Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) as to whether there is a “concession that the unions are willing to make in order to keep all these schools open”, Beale hummed the theme of Jeopardy as he waited for her to respond. Davis Gates never got out an answer to that question. 

CPS administrator, Adam Anderson, assured members of the Chicago City Council Education Committee that community engagement was not over, adding that schools welcoming displaced students were slated to receive additional resources.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) requested that such promises be made in writing.

“The people in my community want to hold CPS accountable because you all never keep your word,” she said. “If this is a new day, I want to see CPS make a commitment that is going to stand the test of time.”

Schools slated for closure in Dowell’s ward include Anthony Overton Elementary School, in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Washington Park, and Francis Parkman Elementary School in Fuller Park. Both schools have a majority African American student body.

Students at Overton, a level three school in low academic standing, are being sent to Irvin C. Mollison Elementary School, also a level three school in low academic standing. Parkman’s students, who currently attend a poor-performing level three school, will travel to Jesse Sherwood Elementary School, a level two school in good academic standing.

Occurring mostly on Chicago’s South and West Sides, approximately 80 percent of the students affected by the proposed school closures are African American.

CTU President Karen Lewis called the school actions “racist” and “classist” at a press conference held outside Mahaila Jackson Elementary School the day the school action plan was announced. Jackson Elementary, located in the South Side neighborhood of Auburn-Gresham, is scheduled to close, with the students headed to Fort Dearborn Elementary School.

Lewis also reaffirmed racist accusations at a rally in downtown Chicago, attended by thousands of protesters, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D, IL-1).

“What I cannot understand, and what I will not accept, are charges that the proposals that I am offering are racist,” Byrd-Bennett told the Chicago Board of Education at today's meeting.

The often-vocal public attendees seated behind her during the presentation were quick to shout out, “they are!”

“That is an affront to me as a woman of color,” she said.

But Darlene Williams, a mother of two students at Ignance Paderewski Elementary Learning Academy, said in an interview with Progress Illinois that the school actions are discriminatory.

Paderewski is the only school in the Pilsen/Little Village network slated for closure. It’s also majority African American, despite being located in a largely Hispanic area.

“My kids are upset,” said Williams. “Why does this have to happen to our school? They’re targeting us and it’s racist.”

Williams was denied the opportunity to speak directly to the Board of Education, as she did not register ahead of time.

But before the public participation portion of the meeting began, Jesse Ruiz, vice president for the Chicago Board of Education, called on speakers to voice “actual, implementable ideas that will help this process, improve this process and also are cognizant of the fiscal challenges we’re facing”, instead of providing “just critiques” and “name-calling.”

In response to Ruiz’s request, Matthew Luskin, a CTU organizer and parent of two LaSalle Elementary Language Academy students, called on the Board of Education to support reform for the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program as an effort to steer more money toward CPS and demand that banks renegotiate “toxic” interest-rate swap deals that reportedly take $35 million from CPS annually.

“We’ve ben presented with financial justification for the largest set of school closures that this country has ever seen,” he said. “For nearly two years the CTU, community organizations and parents across the city have been asking you to join us in a real fight to address the budget problems in a serious way, in a larger way.”

Luskin received cheers and applause from meeting attendees as he submitted pledges to the Board of Education, asking members to sign a commitment to find “real funding for our schools.”

Byrd-Bennett had a visible smirk on her face when Luskin presented the pledges.

“The silence of the Board of Education has been deafening,” Luskin said.

Courtenay Elementary Language Arts Center in Chicago’s North Side neighborhood of Ravenswood is slated to merge with Joseph Stockton Elementary in Uptown, which will technically close. The Stockton building will remain open but take the Courtenay name and students, while the Ravenswood school building will close.

A school of approximately 300 students, Courtenay is ranked level two, in good academic standing, and admits students via lottery. Upon absorbing into Stockton, a level three school of 500 students in poor academic standing, Courtenay will take over and become Uptown’s neighborhood school.

Parents said Courtenay was not privy to the same community hearing as most of the other schools slated for action, and expressed fears of overcrowding to the Chicago Board of Education.

“The current proposal before the Board is insulting and disrespectful to parents in its design and how it was communicated. Courtenay was not included on the list of school closures and therefore stakeholders were not provided with a community forum,” said Wendy Auffant, whose daughter attends Courtenay. “I did not get the opportunity to advocate for my child, my child’s school and the community.”

Katie Reed, another parent from Courtenay Elementary, explains her thoughts on the merging of the two schools:

A protest at City Hall yesterday formally invited Mayor Rahm Emanuel to join education activists as they walk the same paths students will be forced to travel between closed schools and welcoming schools. Many of today’s Chicago Board of Education attendees extended the same invitation to board members.

“Walk with us, see what (the students) see every day,” said Rebecca Martinez, a member of the local school council at Lazaro Cardenas Elementary School in Chicago’s West Side neighborhood of Little Village. Cardenas is slated to absorb a portion of Paderewski Elementary.

Martinez also called for an elected school board, for which Gov. Pat Quinn has also expressed support.

“Difficult (budget) decisions should not be made on the backs of our students,” she said.


With Ohio residency and voter registration... Barbara Byrd Bennett lectures Chicago on how to close Chicago schools -- and what's 'best' for African American kids in Chicago -- while officially living and maintaining voter registration in Ohio in violation of Chicago residency and ethic rules


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