By Bob Secter and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporters
1:29 AM EDT, May 8, 2013
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push to shut 53 city elementary schools ran into an unexpected buzz saw of criticism Tuesday from hearing officers hired to vet the process, with several raising doubts about the wisdom of the proposals and recommending against 13 of the closures set for this year.
The hearing officers, retired state and federal judges, in many cases used sharp language to make it clear they felt many closures were insensitive to children, including special needs students, and even put them in harm’s way.
Carl McCormick, a former Cook County circuit judge, complained in his evaluation of Overton Elementary in Bronzeville that officials promised to send all students at shuttered schools to better ones but in this case were shifting children from one poorly performing site to another.
“This is tantamount, using a food metaphor, to the promise of an omelet with a crisp waffle,” he wrote. “Then what is delivered are broken eggs, whose contents are oozing out and a burnt pancake.”
The recommendations, most posted around midnight Monday on the Chicago Public Schools website, are nonbinding but clearly stung the Emanuel administration. CPS issued a statement saying the former judges “acted outside their authority” in criticizing the closings.
CPS said the hearing officers were charged only with finding if the district complied with state law in deciding which schools to close. In nine cases, the officers found CPS was not in compliance. In four other cases, the officers wrote that they did not agree with the CPS proposal to close those schools.
The hearing officers recommended against closing Stewart, Stockton, Manierre, Calhoun North, Delano, King, Williams Elementary and Middle, Mayo, Overton, Morgan, Jackson and Buckingham schools. (Search for the reports HERE)
One of the hearing officers, Charles Winkler, cited safety concerns in urging that the planned shutdown of Stockton and Stewart schools in the Uptown community area be put off for at least a year. Winkler, retired from the Cook County bench, questioned whether an “understaffed Chicago Police Department” had the manpower to safeguard students traveling longer distances to school.
“Is there really enough time to get everyone up to speed so the 14,400 children from the closing schools are provided safe passage,” Winkler wrote.
A plan to close Buckingham Special Education Center in the Calumet Heights neighborhood also came in for sharp condemnation from former Cook County Judge Cheryl Starks, who was disturbed about youngsters being bused across town to a similar center on the West Side.
“The School Code does not take into account the emotional distress that such a move might have upon the fragile state of the special needs student,” she wrote.
The practical impact of such criticisms is difficult to gauge. The school board, which has scheduled a final vote on closures for May 22, is not legally bound to follow the judges’ recommendations, which were made after public hearings. While criticism of the closings has been rife in the communities, the hearing officers are independent arbiters, hired by the district, whose reports are required under state law.
While the hearing officers concurred with most of CPS’ proposals, many appeared to do so with significant reservations.
From a public relations standpoint, the findings could pose problems for Emanuel and his hand-picked schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. In their critiques, the judges are giving voice to objections that many parents, teachers and community groups have been raising for months about closures.
Emanuel has presented an air of inevitability about the closures, which he argues are necessary to address a $1 billion budget deficit and distribute resources more wisely. His Public Building Commission is set to sign off next week on more than $200 million in renovations at schools set to take in displaced students — a week before the school board is to vote to approve any closures.
The mayor made no public comment Tuesday about the opposition from some hearing officers. Byrd-Bennett released a statement promising that before voting, the board would take into account all hearing officer recommendations.
Sherise McDaniel, a parent fighting attempts to close Manierre Elementary in the Near North Side community area, was overjoyed after learning that retired Cook County Judge Paddy McNamara had recommended the school remain open.
“It validates exactly what we’ve been saying all this time,” McDaniel said. “I feel that now our chances are 50-50.”
What McDaniel had been saying — and what McNamara agreed with — is that sending Manierre students to nearby Jenner School is unsafe and unwise.
In her report, McNamara noted that gang-related violence between Manierre and Jenner students is so well-documented that school officials realigned basketball leagues so the schools would no longer play each other. “There is a history going back over 40 years of rivalry between the two schools,” she wrote.
Such comments caught the ear of at least one school board member, Henry Bienen, who said safety was one of his paramount concerns. Bienen, president emeritus of Northwestern University, promised to raise the observations of hearing officers with CPS officials this week, adding that he “cannot speculate on the impacts of the hearing officers' views.”
For months, closure critics have complained that Emanuel and CPS officials seemed tone-deaf to concerns they raised. Even in reports in which hearing officers supported decisions to close schools, they urged officials to show more sensitivity to safety fears and to complaints over a lack of specificity in transition plans.
Many hearing officers wrote that they were impressed by the outpouring of support from dozens of parents and faculty who appeared before them, often tearfully, to beg for a reprieve.
Retired Cook County Judge Clifford Meacham backed plans to shut Dumas Technology Academy in the Woodlawn neighborhood, but scolded CPS nonetheless. “To the extent the CPS is deficient in meeting the legitimate expectations of those impacted, school closings are likely to generate anger, distrust, and lack of confidence in the process,” he wrote.
Former Cook County Judge Patrick McGann gave a green light to the closing of Paderewski Elementary in the South Lawndale community area, but made it clear he wasn't keen on the move. McGann wrote that he lacked the authority to pass judgment on its reasonableness.
“Faculty, students, parents and community have embraced Paderewski School,” he wrote. “They have worked together to develop a strategy to address the learning needs of the children. … This wonderful commitment cannot go unrecognized.”
Also weighing heavily on several hearing officers was the issue of academic performance and what many considered to be parsing of data by CPS to make some schools marked for closure seemed worse than they really were.
Meacham slapped at CPS for omitting details that might have undermined a case to close Delano Elementary. Starks, in opposing a plan to close Calhoun North Elementary in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, said it clearly was as academically sound as the school that CPS intends to have take in the displaced students.
Another hearing officer, former federal Judge David Coar, had several objections to the closing of Mahalia Jackson Elementary in the Gresham neighborhood, in particular how CPS planned to deal with the school’s large number of deaf and hearing-impaired students.
Coar noted that Jackson teachers had years of experience with sign language and programs for the deaf while teachers at Davis school, where CPS proposes to send Jackson’s hearing impaired students, are only now being taught sign language.
Rod Estvan, an education policy analyst with disability rights group Access Living, said hearing officers sided with his group in opposing two of three proposed closings that would have affected special education students especially hard.
Those recommendations, Estvan said, “represent the failure and haste of this process.”
Tribune reporter David Kidwell contributed.
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