School closing meetings historically have drawn protesters en masse to the cramped school board conference room on the fifth floor of CPS' downtown offices. But this vote will be closely watched because it is the first time Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school board and CPS leadership team will take such actions as they try to transform the city's public school system.
On Tuesday, the Chicago Teachers Union sent out automated phone calls to teachers, suggesting they take a personal day and attend Wednesday's board meeting.
"I understand people are anxious. I respect that — because change is hard," Emanuel said Tuesday at an unrelated news conference. "But watching, year in and year out, kids captured in a system that's failing is harder."
In the face of mounting tension, Emanuel and CPS have stood firm, setting the stage for the most emotionally charged school board meeting of the year. The political stakes for both sides are high.
"This is the mayor's snowplow and it better be working," said DePaul University professor Barbara Radner, recalling former Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic's famously slow response in getting snowplows moving after a major storm, a misstep that some say cost him the 1979 election. "This is (Emanuel's) agenda. And if he's going to have a clear path toward accomplishing it, he can't have a union pothole."
As the meeting loomed, the question was whether Emanuel or CPS would bend to public pressure and remove a school or two from the chopping block, as previous boards have.
CPS officials came close on Tuesday, announcing they had struck a deal with parents and community leaders on the West Side to bring in a new neighborhood high school to replace Crane Tech High School, one of two schools expected to begin a three-year phaseout in the fall.
The school would offer a health science-focused curriculum, in partnership with nearby medical centers and a new curriculum at Malcolm X College. The yet-unnamed high school is tentatively slated to open in fall 2013.
Crane was one of the locations where busloads of paid protesters were brought in to support the proposed closings and "turnarounds," a process that involves replacing school staff and investing in more student learning and mentoring initiatives.
In the last few weeks, the Rev. Roosevelt Watkins of HOPE Organization, a CPS contractor, has acknowledged paying people a stipend for appearing at school closing hearings. Meanwhile, Resolute Consulting, a public relations firm with close ties to the mayor, has said it donated money and services to Watkins and other community groups supporting the mayor's education agenda.
At a City Council education committee meeting Tuesday, Ald. Latasha Thomas, 17th, who chairs the committee, chided CPS officials for not involving the community more when deciding which schools to close or turn around. Many of the district-formed Community Action Councils, largely made up of clergy and community leaders, have complained about being left out of the process.
"I think if they were utilized, some of the surprises would not have happened," Thomas said.
Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, said CPS needs to better inform parents about failing schools, then give those schools the resources to succeed before they're closed or turned around.
"Then if it doesn't work, you can say we tried it and it didn't work," Beale said. "That goes a long way with the community. Historically, CPS hasn't done that."