An internal Chicago Public Schools document obtained by the Tribune shows for the first time that the Emanuel administration has weighed how many elementary and high schools to close in which neighborhoods and how to manage the public fallout.
Labeled a "working draft," the Sept. 10 document lays out the costs and benefits of specific scenarios — revealing that the administration has gone further down the path of determining what schools to target than it has disclosed.
While schools are not listed by name, one section of the document contains a breakdown for closing or consolidating 95 schools, most on the West and South sides, as well as targeting other schools to be phased out gradually or to share their facilities with privately run charter schools.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his top school leaders have said they are in the early stages of making difficult decisions and that the city cannot afford to keep operating deteriorating schools with dwindling student populations in the face of a billion-dollar budget deficit. The document goes well beyond what the administration has outlined to the public.
Amid a September teachers strike, the Tribune reported that the Emanuel administration was considering plans to close 80 to 120 schools, most in poor minority neighborhoods. Administration officials have repeatedly denied they have such a figure.
"Unless my staff has a hidden drawer somewhere where they've got numbers in there, we don't have a number," schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in November.
But the internal document, prepared at a time when school leaders faced a December deadline to make their decisions public, lays out multiple scenarios for closing neighborhood schools and adding privately run charters — a key component of Emanuel's plans for improving public education. Chicago Teachers Union members, aldermen and other charter school critics have accused the administration of favoring the charters while depriving schools in poor neighborhoods of needed improvements.
The document discusses how to deal with public reaction to school closing decisions, with ideas ranging from establishing "a meaningful engagement process with community members" to building a "monitoring mechanism to ensure nimble response to opposition to proposed school actions."
It is unclear how closely the administration is following the ideas in the 3-month-old document; sources told the Tribune the school closing plans are being constantly updated and subsequent proposals have been kept under close wraps.
The detailed document obtained by the Tribune comes from a time when a Chicago teachers strike interrupted the beginning of the school year and Jean-Claude Brizard was still Emanuel's schools chief; the embattled Brizard quit soon after. Byrd-Bennett was a top education official at CPS under Brizard and was named by Emanuel to succeed him.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said Tuesday that "this plan was proposed by past leadership at CPS and is not supported by CEO Byrd-Bennett."
"In terms of whatever document you have, I don't care when it's dated, as of today there's no list and there's no plan," Carroll said. "Maybe there were multiple, different scenarios passed around at some point, I don't know, but there's no list of schools.
"When CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett took this position, she made it very clear that we were going to do this differently than how it's been done in the past," which is why she appointed a commission to take public input on school closings, Carroll said.
But under Byrd-Bennett's tenure, at least one of the proposals outlined in the secret document has come to pass — the idea of a five-year moratorium on further school closings after this school year.
First mention: The September document raises the idea of a moratorium that would extend beyond Emanuel's first term in office as part of the rollout of school closings. But the mayor's first public mention of a moratorium came in November, when he offered it as a sweetener that helped persuade state lawmakers to extend the December deadline for announcing school closings to March.
Critics called the delay a ploy to give opponents less time to organize against the closings. But Emanuel said school officials needed the time to gather community input on the "tough choices" about school closings.
Byrd-Bennett said her decisions on what schools to close won't come until after she receives recommendations from the commission she created. The Tribune reported last week that the commission chairman doesn't plan on issuing recommendations until days before the March 31 deadline for announcing school closings — and even then, there are no plans for the commission to identify individual schools.
While CPS has not released a list of schools to close, it has made publicly available a breakdown of how much a building is used, performance levels per school and how expensive the facility is to keep open. School officials have said underenrollment is a key factor in school closing decisions this year. The school system recently released a list of about 300 "underutilized" schools — nearly half the district — that have dwindling student populations.
But the document obtained by the Tribune contains clues as to how the administration could make those decisions.
Closing breakdown: The most stark page in the document is a graphic that breaks down the 95 schools that could be closed in each of CPS' 19 elementary and high school networks.
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