TOPICS > Education

Chicago Board of Education Plans to Shut Down 54 Schools, Move 30,000 Students

March 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Chicago Board of Education plans to close 54 schools, citing a $1 billion deficit and under-enrollment. Critics say this move will disrupt communities and put kids in danger. For both sides of the debate, Jeffrey Brown talks with Board vice president Jesse Ruiz and Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The debate over the city of Chicago’s plan to close dozens of public schools intensified today. Public school officials cited a billion-dollar deficit and under enrollment as the driving factors behind the move. But critics claim it will hurt the communities where the schools are located, primarily Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods.

The closures could start as soon as this school year ends. This week, parents received letters alerting them to the proposed cuts.

WOMAN: Now we have got to worry about our kids going to another location and worry about what’s going to happen to them going to school.

MAN: It’s all about routine. And so now you’re disrupting the routine of the children.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Chicago Public Schools proposal would close 54 underutilized schools, forcing the relocation of approximately 30,000 students. The district says the move would save $560 million dollars over the next decade.

CPS chief executive officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett addressed the plan in a video posted Wednesday on the district’s Web site.

BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT, Chicago Public Schools: What we must do is to ensure that the resources that some kids get, that all kids get. With our consolidations, we’re able to guarantee that our children will get what they need and what they deserve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Opponents of the shutdown include the Chicago Teachers Union, whose members struck over demands for higher pay and other issues for a week last September. They have organized a march and rally for next week.

But some parents see the potential change as something positive.

WOMAN: It would be a great opportunity for her to get outside of the neighborhood school and go to a better school.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on the measure in May.

Declining enrollment has also forced other major cities like Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia to close scores of public schools in recent years.

And we take up the debate now with two people at the center of the fight. We start with Jesse Ruiz. He’s vice president of the Chicago Board of Education. He was appointed to that post by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Welcome to you.

So, why is such a dramatic action so necessary? Is this resources, money, pure and simple?

JESSE RUIZ, Chicago Board of Education: No. It is twofold.

One, we are looking at a record budget deficit of about one billion dollars next year. So we’re looking for every aspect to reap savings in our system. And we have underutilized schools that — as a result from population loss in certain parts of the city of Chicago. And so it’s healthy for those schools to right-size, to become fully utilized schools, and thus combining underutilized schools, which happens to then garner us savings that we can reinvest and focus those limited resources we have in one school building, as opposed to multiple, partially used billions.

JEFFREY BROWN: For people around the country, give us a sense of how serious the situation is there. Is there a sense that Chicago is failing some of its students right now?

JESSE RUIZ: I think we have.

We have failed to provide those resources that can give them added benefits, particularly in underserved communities. And so thus we’re focusing on these underserved communities. And it happens to be areas where there has been population loss. And so we can consolidate some of these schools, save $43 million a year in operations, reinvest those $43 million into the classrooms, and directly toward our students that will benefit them every single day and help them get a better education in Chicago public schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the criticisms, of course, is that this will hurt poor neighborhoods even more. They will lose a kind of hub of the neighborhood and that many of the students will now have to travel longer distances, in many cases through unsafe neighborhoods.

JESSE RUIZ: Sure.

And we’re cognizant of those concerns. We’re concerned about those things, and thus looking to repurpose some of those buildings so that they don’t stay vacant, that they continue to serve the neighborhoods, just simply not as schools, perhaps as parent centers, other neighborhood centers, perhaps that other NGOs and nonprofits can use those for other services to provide to the community.

Meanwhile, we can take those savings and then also put it into safe passage programs to make sure that students that now have to travel in different routes or a little bit further will have a safe route to get to school and try to ensure that the safety and security of our students is utmost.

And so we’re going to reinvest those dollars to make sure they have a safe — and feel comfortable attending a new school.

JEFFREY BROWN: But doesn’t that take some money to repurpose those buildings? I guess one argument would be the money you’re going to use for that, you could use to do to enhance the buildings right now, keep the kids there.

JESSE RUIZ: Well, we won’t repurpose the buildings. Other folks will. We could potentially provide the building to them at little or low cost, and other agencies can do that. We will take the money that we will save, again $43 million dollars a year in simply not operating them.

On top of that, we will save $560 million dollars in the next decade in capital avoidance of costs that we won’t have to put into some of these buildings that are very, very old and need a lot of repairs. We’d rather focus those on a newer facility that’s more already prepared for 21st century learning with the latest technology and libraries and laboratories that students need and the technology that students need to use to learn today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another question I have heard is, why all at once? I mean, this is — it becomes a very disruptive thing when you do so many schools at one time.

Is the city prepared for this, when you’re going to have thousands of people, many buildings affected?

JESSE RUIZ: Well, we have been doing this a little bit at a time for last decade, frankly.

And we’re, frankly, weary of having to go through this every single Europe in Chicago. Every spring is school closing season. We want to be done with this business now, get it done with, right-size of district. It’s frankly something that should have been done. This is a problem that has been a decade-long in the making, should have been addressed before.

The current school board and school management at CPS is determined to not ignore those issues. I think, frankly, that I would be disappointed in all of us if we didn’t recognize this issue and address it, and not be satisfied with the status quo. And let’s go on to the next five years, and have a moratorium on school closings, which the mayor and the school administration has said would be the case, and focus on teaching and learning every spring, not closing schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: Race is inevitably an issue. These are largely black and Hispanic majority schools and students affected.

What do you say to people who say that this is always — it is these minority communities where the disruption is felt?

JESSE RUIZ: Well, it’s these minority communities that have been underserved, and thus, even though we’re facing a billion-dollar deficit, we want to take those savings and reinvest it in the schools that do need those critical supports, that do need wraparound services.

And this is a way to get those monies out of, frankly, buildings and put them into student services and classrooms that directly impact the learning environment for a student. And so we’re cognizant of that. And, again, we’re frustrated that folks that were running the school system previously didn’t address this, and we’re here today, and we’re going to address it today.

We think there’s an urgency about this to get this work done, do it well, and make sure that the best interest of the student is always at heart, which it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, does this mean loss of jobs, teachers’ jobs, administrative jobs, and do you think this is it? Is there more to come?

JESSE RUIZ: There potentially could be some loss of jobs. In the last teacher contract, there was a negotiated system of how these teachers would reapply for positions.

Obviously, the students aren’t going away. They’re just being consolidated in one school building. So we still need those high-quality teachers. We will save on some custodial services, that we will have fewer of those needs in one building vs. two or three.

And, yes, we look forward to this being it, and thus making a big effort this year, making huge strides in getting a current right-size system, and then for the next five years being done with this and focusing on teaching and learning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jesse Ruiz of the Chicago Board of Education, thank you very much.

JESSE RUIZ: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us live now is Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago’s Teachers Union.

Welcome to you.

So, tell us, what is the most important reason that you oppose this move?

KAREN LEWIS, Chicago Teachers Union: Well, we oppose it because it’s completely destabilizing of neighborhoods in which their neighborhood is already destabilized.

Jesse Ruiz is very good at laying out the problems from a spreadsheet analysis. And it makes perfect sense. Oh, let’s put two places together that are underutilized. The problem is, the reason most of these buildings are underutilized is because we have had decades of school closings.

So, the school closings have created this underutilization issue. And one of the things that is very problematic about it is, if you listen to him, it’s all corporate-speak. So, this is an attack. It’s a corporate attack on public education. We have 25 buildings right now that are still vacant from the closings.

I love how he says, well, we’re going to repurpose these buildings. Those are all perhaps. I hope everybody noticed that. There’s no plan for this. There’s no safety plan block by block. People do not understand how unsafe Chicago is right now. I know you have heard it and you have talked about it. But, literally, we have 59 different gangs in Chicago and 650 branches of those gangs.

So, we’re talking block by block. So sending children from one place to the next could be deadly. And, in addition, there are a lot of special ed programs. I was at a school yesterday that was a fairly new building that had already been retrofitted with the things that they said they wanted to give, libraries, computer labs, science labs, beautiful building.

They’re being sent to a school that is much, much older, not in good shape, and not really equipped to handle the children with special needs there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask you the same question that I asked him about whether and to what extent Chicago is failing its student today. Where do you see the failure and where do you see the cause?

KAREN LEWIS: I mean, I don’t understand the — what we’re talking about when we’re talking about failing.

We have been failing poor and minority children across this country. It’s not just Chicago. It’s everywhere. And the issue is, we don’t want to have honest conversations about poverty, because doing these other things and focusing the conversation somewhere else allows people to not talk about the other issues.

So, in the poorer parts of town, children have not had access to good things, and then, all of a sudden, we’re starting to see that happen. Almost every single school that is on the bubble here, we have seen a lot of resources put in lately, but some not so much at all.

So the city and the administration, look, we have had four different CEOs in the last three years. We have had a constant churning of the Board of Education and people in CPS. This is not the time for them to do this drastic, draconian — I mean, this is a complete warfare.

This is warfare now. So we’re not going to only have food deserts in Chicago. We’re going to have places that actually have school deserts.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked him about potential cuts. I wonder what you — how you see that. Do you see this as an attack on teachers and the union?

KAREN LEWIS: Absolutely.

I mean, this is a problem that we have been seeing, again, nationwide. But here in Chicago, it’s especially heinous, because we have a mayor that only has the ear — the only people that have his ear are the corporate reformer types. So they won’t listen to ways to really accomplish the kind of things we want to do.

Everyone wants the best education they can possibly have for their children. We don’t blame parents. We don’t blame society. We don’t blame anything, but we have to honestly look at why are they attacking us so much? We feel like we’re in Chiraq. It’s terrible here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me turn it back on you, because there is a perception, fair or not, from many people that teachers unions are often a barrier to changes that are necessary.

And you heard this when you went on strike last year, that whatever is put forward, the response will be, no, we want to stay with the status quo. Right?

KAREN LEWIS: And that is not true. The status quo is that rich people get richer and beautiful schools, and poor children have bad schools.

We are absolutely against the status quo. But what our children have been subject to is status quo education, a status quo of ranking and sorting. We are absolutely against the status quo.

But they use it all the time because they are the ones that actually promote the status quo. They don’t want to end — they don’t want to end the status quo. But they want to point their fingers at us.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens now? Are you planning to fight this? How do you do that?

KAREN LEWIS: You know, there are a variety of ways. But you never put all your eggs in one basket. There are legal means. There are legislative means.

There are — but the most important way is to mobilize our parents. We have had weeks and weeks of hearings. They have had thousands of people come out and say, do not close our schools. This was Rahm Emanuel’s number, the number that we have now, 50. It was always that number. They put out 300 and some. Then they came back with 129.

They were always spent in having this number, this shock and awe, this complete destruction of publicly funded public education in Chicago. The key is mass mobilization of our members, our teachers, our paraprofessionals, clinicians, along with parents and community. They do not want their neighborhoods destroyed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union, thank you so much.

KAREN LEWIS: Thank you for having me. And we miss you in Chicago.