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Schools Chief Calls For Five-Year Moratorium on School Closures

By  Lizzie Schiffman Tufano and Chloe Riley | November 26, 2012 1:12pm | Updated on November 26, 2012 6:22pm

 Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett addresses reporters at a press conference announcing a planned five-year moratorium on school closures.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett addresses reporters at a press conference announcing a planned five-year moratorium on school closures.
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DNAinfo/Emily Morris

CHICAGO — Newly-appointed Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced Monday that she plans to halt school closures for five years starting in the fall of next year.

Schools could still be closed between now and next fall, said Marielle Sainvilus, a spokesperson for CPS.

But the moratorium would apply to future school closing decisions, which are made a year in advance. Decisions made this year could still lead to closures for the 2013-2014 school year, but the moratorium, if enacted, would stall closures from the 2014-2015 school year through 2020.

In her remarks at a press conference Monday, Byrd-Bennett also did not close the door on school actions this year and next.

"Excess schools cause us to strech our resources too thinly," Byrd-Bennett said in a speech emphasizing the importance of school quality. She said nearly 50 percent of CPS schools are underutilized, and nearly 140 schools are "more than half empty."

The district has the capacity to serve 500,000 students, but only 403,000 students are currently enrolled in the district's 681 schools, according to a written statement from CPS.

"When we consolidate underutilized or half-empty schools, we will be better able to invest those resources across the district for every student," Byrd-Bennett said.

The possibility of a moratorium hinges on an earlier request from the school board for extra time to develop a school action proposal, which is due by Saturday unless the Illinois General Assembly extends the deadline to March 31. On Monday, Byrd-Bennett emphasized the importance of gathering input from teachers, parents and community members before a formal decision is made.

The schools chief has only been at the helm since Oct. 12, and told reporters Monday that she felt she "did not have enough time to hear from the community" about school actions.

As Byrd-Bennett made her remarks, the Chicago Public Schools Commission on School Utilization was meeting less than three miles away, at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum. Chairman Frank Clark said he and the commission are so far removed from the school board that he hadn't heard of Byrd-Bennett's moratorium proposal until he walked up on stage at 1:15 p.m.

After the hearing, Robert Starks, director of the Harold Washington Institute for Research and Policy Studies, praised the proposed moratorium.

"I'm concerned that neighborhood people, especially poor parents and children, were not involved in the beginning of this process," he said. He also said that "out in the neighborhoods ... parents are gearing up for a fight" if the moratorium isn't enacted.

Tonia Mykhailenko, 53, a parent from the Near North Side, said she's especially concerned about about closures and other actions on the city's South and West sides, where she has nieces and nephews enrolled in CPS "who may have to go to schools in more unsafe neighborhoods" if their schools are closed or consolidated.

Byrd-Bennett said Monday that CPS faces a $665 million deficit this year. Clark said the decision to close schools is not connected to the budget, or tethered to the whims of the school board, even though the board appoints his commission's members.

"We are an independent body," he said. "No one is telling us what to do."

Earlier this month, Byrd-Bennett released guidelines to determine which schools would be eligible for closure, consolidation, phase-out or other actions.

Byrd-Bennett’s new closure guidelines guidelines draw heavily on the district’s Space Utilization Standards published at the end of 2011, which provide a model to calculate schools’ efficiency. For elementary schools, efficiency is based on maintaining roughly a 3 to 1 ratio of full-time classrooms to ancillary rooms, like labs and art rooms.

Parents, teachers and activists staged two protests in November calling for the district to halt planned school closures, including a Nov. 2 event where Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the deadline extension request  "an admission of failure of this policy" and asked CPS to "admit you made a mistake and go all the way to make a moratorium."