CPS adds community input to school closing, consolidation process

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Chicago Public Schools officials on Friday released new, slightly more democratic requirements for the district to consolidate schools or change attendance boundaries, and spelled out how the district will shut down charters that fail to meet benchmarks for student achievement or financial management.

Under state law, the district publishes “school action guidelines” each school year. The changes in this year’s draft of the guidelines come as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent political vulnerability has unions and restive aldermen calling for an elected school board, and as one of the city’s largest charter school networks has come under fire following a CPS audit.

State law requires the district each year to publish guidelines CPS will follow when choosing to close or consolidate schools, or redraw attendance boundaries.

The version of those rules for last year allowed CEO Forrest Claypool to merge schools or redraw boundaries, so long as a school projected to have an enrollment that fell below the district’s “enrollment efficiency standards” or where was overcrowded, as defined by the district’s “Space Utilization Standards.”

Guidelines for this school year add to those technocratic criteria that the schools’ “principal, parents or community members” request the changes. Such a request already was one of several criteria required for the district to consider a school closing.

The guidelines for closing or consolidating schools also added criteria targeting contract schools—-schools that are publicly funded, but receive money from CPS— stating they can be closed or merged if the school violates terms of its contract with CPS, fails to hit student achievement benchmarks or “failing to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management.”

The decision in 2014 to shutter 50 schools citywide, a cost-cutting move critics said targeted schools in black and Latino neighborhoods, had been the most polarizing move of Emanuel’s first term as mayor.

With Emanuel’s administration politically weakened by backlash from the Laquan McDonald shooting and ensuing protests over police shootings, the state House this spring passed a bill that would create an elected, 21-member board to oversee CPS, replacing the smaller group appointed by the mayor.

CPS officials this spring threatened to yank the charter of UNO Charter School Network, which has schools with an enrollment of 8,000 students and receives about $80 million a year in public funding, after an audit determined the private school company was not providing adequate support to bilingual students.

The audit came more than three years after a Sun-Times investigation showed UCSN had steered millions in state construction grant dollars to companies connected to UNO, a clout-heavy Latino group that is the parent organization of USCN.

CPS will accept comments on the guidelines for three weeks before approving them. The district must announce any plan to close, consolidate or alter school boundaries by Dec. 1.

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