The hidden lessons from closing 50 schools

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The scrap heap of Illinois history is piled high with long-forgotten government reports.

Many of them deserve their fade into tattered obscurity, but occasionally a research effort merits a bright spotlight.

And that’s the case with an incisive, hard-hitting task force study — released in June by key members of the state’s General Assembly — on last year’s controversial, contentious and traumatic closing of 50 Chicago public schools, mostly in minority communities on the South and West sides.

The report doesn’t mince words, blasting the system’s handling of a shutdown unprecedented in scope, and sharply critiquing CPS management of its remaining schools and facilities.

Surprisingly, the findings landed with a thud, generating minimal media coverage and scant reaction from lawmakers and community leaders.

Had this been a movie release, the production would have been sent “straight to video.”

The Better Government Association’s not sure why the veil of silence has descended, in part because only one lawmaker on the task force answered our investigators’ calls and emails.

The legislators were equally elusive in July when Catalyst Chicago, a nonprofit that reports on CPS, tried to get some answers.

That’s too bad because the report raises important questions about CPS decision-making that deserve answers.

The task force was co-chaired by two Chicago-area Democrats, Rep. Cynthia Soto and Sen. Heather Steans, and they take CPS to task for:

◆ Failing to announce the closing list in time for students to apply to magnet or selective enrollment schools.

◆ Rejecting feedback from independent hearing officers who disagreed with some closing recommendations.

◆ Refusing to consider the assessments of reputable researchers on the negative impact closings would have on class size at receiving schools.

◆ Not revealing the full cost, or savings, of the entire relocation process.

◆ And neglecting to factor in the impact closings might have on transferred students.

You can read the executive summary of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force online.

Given the nature of the findings — which were sent to Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS leadership — you’d think someone in authority would be clamoring for public hearings or further investigation.

In fact, the report cries out for an examination of “best practices” in other municipalities that managed school closings so Chicago can handle them better in the future.

The point is: We could all learn something, especially the mayor, who quarterbacked a process that’s having a tremendous impact on Chicago communities, parents and children.

Let’s be clear — we’re not endorsing a process aimed at beating up on City Hall or CPS leadership.

School and city officials who disagree with the task force conclusions should have an opportunity to address the concerns that were raised.

So why isn’t it happening?

One conspiracy theory suggests that Speaker Madigan is helping Emanuel by keeping the lid on a super-sensitive community issue that could reignite the smoldering embers of the school closing firestormand smoke out CPS on future facility plans.

Madigan’s spokesman scoffs at that scenario, pointing out that state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, head of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, could convene a hearing.

LaVia told the BGA last week that she and her colleagues are “working on it,” but she didn’t elaborate.

The only task force member who was willing to talk to us, State Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Sycamore, thinks there’s more work to do.

“What the task force investigated was the tip of the iceberg,” he says.

That sounds right, but it sure feels like a lot of powerful people would prefer to keep this report out of the sunlight and locked in a deep freeze until it can be transferred to the growing trash heap of orphaned government reports.

That would be a big mistake.

A better plan is to thaw it out and serve it up for public consumption.

That might leave a bitter taste in our mouths, but it would definitely be good for our civic health and well-being.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association.

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