PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday September 25th, 2013, 10:54pm

Chicago Board Of Ed Approves CPS' Facilities Plan; Education Activists Hold First People's Board Meeting

Progress Illinois provides a recap of what happened at the Chicago Board of Education meeting, as well as the first "People's Board Meeting".

The Chicago Board of Education approved Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) finalized 10-year Educational Facilities Master Plan Wednesday, despite concerns from residents who said it was incomplete, too vague and moreso an excuse to close 50 neighborhood schools than a forward-thinking document.

Many of the city board of ed members, except Carlos Azcoitia who was not in attendance, also raised a number of issues with the plan before unanimously passing it.

According to CPS, the 10-year blueprint for facilities investments looks to create “21st century learning environments and expand high-quality options for families throughout Chicago.” The plan, required by a 2011 state law, is also a way to provide community members with updates on plans for schools in their neighborhoods. CPS released the draft facilities plan in May, and the board had to approve it by no later than October 1, as required by state law.

Among many things, the plan looks to address the gap between students who qualify for selective enrollment schools and the amount of seats available, expand access to high-quality programs like selective enrollment schools and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs, and enhance technology infrastructure.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis told board members that the visions laid out in the plan resembled much of what already exists across the district.

“I don’t see the plan for the future,” she stressed.

During discussion before the vote, board member Andrea Zopp said the blueprint lacked specifics, adding that it did not clearly explain how CPS would prioritize and make its decisions regarding what schools would see future investments based on the district’s limited resources.

“We have got to put together a process that has some transparency so people can see what the difficult decisions we’re making are and how we are going about making them,” Zopp told CPS’ Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz.

Babbitz reassured board members that the plan is a “living document”, meaning it will continue to be improved. One of the first orders of business, for example, is refreshing the plan with data from this year’s 20th day of enrollment, he said.

Future facility investments are also highly-dependent upon the district’s available resources. CPS’ financial challenges, namely a projected $1 billion budget deficit, will likely limit the pace at which investments can be made, Babbitz stressed.

CPS’ 10-year vision includes getting more students into selective enrollment schools. CPS says there are some 2,500 students who are qualified to get into such schools, but they can’t find an open seat.

To help address that matter, board member Mahalia Hines suggested CPS do more to promote high-quality, selective enrollment high schools located on the South Side, which see far fewer students lining up to get in compared to similar schools on the North Side. As it stands, the blueprint does not address ways to lure more students to the South Side schools, but it is something that can be considered during the plan’s improvement process, Babbitz responded.

Following the district's recent record-breaking round of school closures, CPS promised a five-year moratorium on school closings. The 10-year plan reinforces that no facilities are planned to shutter over the next five years.

There is, however, a specific focus on alleviating neighborhood school overcrowding. CPS says 84 schools across the district are overcrowded, based on this year’s 10th day of enrollment. To help tackle the problem, CPS opened its application process in mid-August for new charter schools in a number of neighborhoods including Ashburn, Belmont Cragin, Little Village, McKinley Park, Sauganash and others.

“How are we going to decide which overcrowded schools we’re going to address,” asked Zopp. “What’s the process for getting down to the specifics as we go under this plan, because those are the questions I know we’re going to get.”

CPS has a five-year capital plan that includes $20 million per year for overcrowding relief, Babbitz said. But the district’s financial outlook might change, he stressed, adding that the conversation about finances has to be “fluid”.  The 10-year plan projects costs at $3.5 billion for building maintenance and repairs, including millions for upgrades like air conditioning, playgrounds and lab modernization, to name a few.

CPS officials say they will work to seek outside funding for additional improvements. But outside money, like funds from the state, may be attached to particular upgrades or projects in specific areas of the city, “which can lead to some changes in prioritization, which makes it very difficult to just come up with a list [of priority schools] right now,” Babbitz said.

Now that the Chicago Board of Education has approved the plan, CPS has to prepare a 10-year educational facility master plan every five years, with updates every two-and-a-half years after approval of the initial 10-year plan.

The Haves and Have Nots

Concerns over which schools make the top of the list for improvements also appears to be the crux of the debate over the ongoing issue of overcrowding at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Lincoln Park. CPS leased space at nearby DePaul University to house some its classes this year as a short-term solution to the school's overcrowding.

But Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and a handful of parents who attended Wednesday's board meeting said it’s urgent that CPS fund a long-term solution to the problem. Lincoln Park parents and the alderman have been fighting to move the school to a new facility with a $30 million to $50 million price tag at the former Children’s Memorial Hospital site, for which the CPS district says it will not pay. Over the past year, the plan’s supporters have been seeking state and other outside funds to help build the school.

Other Lincoln Park residents at the meeting, however, acknowledged that although Lincoln Elementary may be crowded, a number of underutilized, high-performing elementary schools are closeby. They also noted that Lincoln ranks 51st out of 58 overcrowded schools with attendance boundaries, and therefore it should not be one of CPS’ highest priorities.

Michelle Hoppe Villegas, a CPS parent of two former Lincoln students, called the proposal “unnecessary” and said it serves the interests of a very few who already “have a plethora of Level One school options within this neighborhood.”

“At this time of claimed fiscal austerity warranting $68 million slashed from school budgets and nearly 1,500 teachers laid off, we now have confirmation from seven sources that Mayor Emanuel has somehow found funding for the Lincoln Middle School,” Hoppe Villegas said. “How could that be possible? How could the 51st most-crowded school get a brand new, state-of-the-art middle school, jumping over 50 more-crowded schools in CPS when many of the more crowded communities have far fewer good options than Lincoln? [It's] because Lincoln Elementary is located in prosperous Lincoln Park, as are the connected, wealthy friends of Mayor Emanuel and Alderman Michele Smith.”

Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale said CPS has worked “almost tirelessly” with community members on a fix for Lincoln’s overcrowding.

“As you heard today, it has been difficult to develop a consensus around that,” Vitale said. “We hope that one is forming, but it didn’t come across today.”

Vitale made it clear that a proposed solution has not yet been put on the table.

“There is an impression out there that there is an answer that has been agreed to ... but this board has not been presented a proposal for exactly what to do,” he said. “For those who think that it’s all passed through these people it has not yet.”

Community Members Hold Their Own Board Meeting

Meanwhile, more than 70 education activists and community members gathered for their own “People’s Board Meeting” Wednesday night to push back on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s "rubber stamp" appointed school board.

The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and it’s ultimately up to the state legislature to change that.

Those at the meeting, held at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side, practiced what it would be like to live in a city in which school policy was decided democratically, transparently and driven by the people, said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator with the CTU, one of the many organizations involved with the effort. Other groups represented at the meeting included Action Now, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Parents for Teachers and Pilsen Alliance, to name a new.

The night mostly consisted of community testimony about the current state of education in the city and a vision for the future.

The group is calling is for an elected, representative school board modeled after Local School Councils, which include voices from parents, teachers and community members. Such a school board would ideally have 13 members in order to ensure people are represented from different parts of the city with various levels of wealth and areas of expertise within the school system.

To make this happen, the group plans to focus its attention on rallying support for HB 2793, which is a bill pending in the state legisltuare that would create a mandate for an elected Chicago school board.

Jitu Brown, an organizer with KOCO, said community members have already meet with Cook County state legislators and will soon be taking trips outside the Chicagoland area to places like Carbondale to meet with lawmakers. More than 20 state legislators have thus far said they would vote for the bill, Brown said. Trips to Springfield are also in the works. Their goal is to get the bill brought up as early as the upcoming fall veto session.

Those involved with the effort are also forming accountability committees, which would keep an eye on what’s happening inside public schools. The committees would report their findings to their respective Local School Councils on a monthly basis and would also issue a report to CPS by spring 2014.

Nelson Soza with the Pilsen Alliance said the meeting included people from all corners of the city, and the movement will only get stronger going forward.

He did acknowledge, however, that bringing an elected school board to the Windy City would not be a walk in the park.

“This is a very difficult thing,” he stressed. “There’s going to be a lot of opposition from the city, from the mayor, from very powerful interests.”

Potter said the idea of an elected, representative school board in Chicago is a “hugely popular issue”, and he belives it will remain prominent during the upcoming electoral cycles.

“The question remains: if there’s issues that are prominent and campaigns that are popular that are alive during the campaign cycle, does that play a role in the mayoral election and the aldermanic elections,” Potter asked. “I think it will. Ultimately, if a mayor said, ‘I want an elected school board in Chicago,’ it would happen tomorrow.”

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