Chicago Public Schools will now consider allowing charter schools to move into shuttered school buildings, if there’s community support, despite a promise by CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett not to allow that, the district said Wednesday.
Byrd-Bennett, who is currently on leave, had vehemently opposed adding charter school students to CPS buildings with too few children in 2013 to justify keeping them open. She promised repeatedly to the state legislature and community at large that charters wouldn’t move into the 50 schools she closed.
“CPS continues to follow the commitment made during the 2013 consolidations to not permit closed school sites to be repurposed as charter schools,” spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. “We’ve also committed to a community-driven process to identify a future use for each former school site that meets the needs of the surrounding community.”
“If a community determines that a charter school is a desired option, CPS will consider that option,” McCaffrey said.
When she closed 50 schools, Byrd-Bennett pointed to the loss of school-age children, mostly in African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. She reasoned that the district’s resources weren’t being used efficiently by supporting too many schools with too few students.
CPS has since struggled to unload the buildings. It immediately repurposed three for offices and school programs. Only two of the buildings have been sold so far; dozens remain. Several were put up for sale following a process that let the surrounding community and alderman dictate its future purpose, but at least one sale was never finalized. Three more are currently up for sale; the request for proposals for one of them, Overton Elementary School, specifically forbade charter schools. The district received best and final offers for them last Friday and is “carefully evaluating final offers,” McCaffrey said.
But it also had put the former Wadsworth building, at 6420 S. University Ave., up for sale after the University of Chicago Charter School broached a purchase for its Woodlawn charter campus. Wadsworth shared the building with the charter until it left in June 2013 to take over the closed Dumas Technology Academy building.
The deal since fell through, but McCaffrey had justified it at the time saying, “the building was a co-location and it was never vacant.” He also said the charter leased the space for $1 per year, so it made financial sense for the district to sell it.
CPS meanwhile has been paying to secure and maintain the empty buildings.
At a hearing set for Thursday, CPS will listen to testimony supporting the move of a charter school into one of the closed school properties that was sold. Peabody Elementary School, in the 1400 block of West Augusta Boulevard, could become home to part of Rowe Elementary School, a charter operated by the neighboring Northwestern Settlement. The settlement was part of the Peabody’s sale.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which fought the closings and expressed fears in 2013 that the closings were a ruse to hand the buildings to politically connected charter operators, was outraged Wednesday and accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of going back on his promise.
“This is a clear betrayal of the Board’s promise to not allow charters to snatch up closed schools,” union staff coordinator Jackson Potter said Wednesday. “It is now abundantly clear that not only is there a relationship between charter expansion and school closings, but that the big charter networks want to close more schools in order to capture their resources. Its not about choice or improving educational opportunities for children, it’s about satisfying hedge fund investors like [Gov. Bruce] Rauner and Ken Griffin to expand the charter footprint at the expense of public neighborhood schools.”
CPS faces a $1.1 billion budget crisis, more than half of which stems from pension payments Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz recently warned principals that their school budgets could suffer if Springfield doesn’t solve the pension crisis for the cash-strapped district.
And the district’s bond rating slid to junk status, according to Moody’s Investors Service, making the cost of borrowing much more expensive.
The Board of Education continues to approve new charter schools and renew existing ones. It held hearings Wednesday to consider five-year charter renewals.
Charter schools that exist in private buildings — as opposed to receiving space from CPS — currently receive $750 from CPS for each student as a facilities reimbursement.
That means taxpayers are paying twice — first to maintain empty CPS facilities, then to house students in private charter buildings.
Illinois Network of Charter Schools president Andrew Broy said CPS’ change of heart makes financial sense.
“Given our city’s current fiscal challenges and the simple reality that vacant buildings are bad for neighborhoods, charter public schools should not be discriminated against in access to public facilities. . . . Locating charter public schools in CPS facilities ensures that schools can direct more resources to the classroom where they are needed.”