CHICAGO — The worst-kept secret in Chicago is that there's a lack of trust between the schools and their teachers and the public.
"I had not realized how much the community is suspect and believes that we have no respect for them," said Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett earlier this month. People "believe that we are not to be trusted, believe that there is a secret list around the 125 [schools to possibly be closed], and that's simply untrue."
"How can the public trust this Board of Education when they have been systematically misrepresenting information for the past year?" said Chicago Teachers Union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle at the board meeting this week. "There may not be a final list, but there's a plan. We know there's a plan."
She pointed to a September "working draft" released by the Chicago Tribune identifying 95 schools to be closed.
Byrd-Bennett disowned the list as the work of the previous school administration, and both Board of Education President David Vitale and Mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted to explain it away as preliminary background work.
"Over the last decade, there's been a lot of paperwork," Emanuel said Thursday. "I would expect people to do some analysis."
Mayle said her lack of trust goes back to when Arne Duncan was CPS chief and promised the school where she taught would not to be closed. The school was later closed.
Teachers were also riled when a raise they had negotiated was reneged on by the Board of Education under a clause that allowed it to do so if it didn't have the money. That led directly to September's strike and a fresh set of ironclad raises.
Community leaders were upset by the school district's recent decision to base school closings solely on "utilization," not academic performance.
"Academic performance is not on the table at this time," Byrd-Bennett said this week. "Right now, first and foremost, we need to address our underutilization crisis."
Yet the district's own list of "underutilized" schools identifies them mainly in minority neighborhoods on the South and West Side. Prudence Browne, of Teachers for Social Justice, called that "a form of community divestment," adding, "Chicago deserves well-resourced schools for all students, not charter and selective-enrollment schools for some students."
Byrd-Bennett has said she's "agnostic" on the type of school — public, charter, military or other — and that she's only committed to "quality." Yet CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey has pointed out the contradiction of closing schools while the Board of Education authorizes 11 new charters for the fall.
What is to be done to address the lack of trust? CPS and the Board of Education have placed a lot of faith in an "independent" commission assigned to look at school closings and winnow down the 330 schools Byrd-Bennett has identified as "underutilized." She promised a "rigorous engagement plan" with community hearings in January and February.
"Our goal is to give the community the respect they deserve in this process, rebuild trust with CPS and create a path for right-sizing our district so that we can better invest resources in every child and every school in the city," Byrd-Bennett said in a speech to the Urban League in November.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed that, saying that in the past the Board of Education acted "like Zeus," issuing edicts from on high, but promising a new era of "community engagement" in the process to determine which schools should be closed to address an estimated $1 billion budget shortfall.
Yet, at the same time, the Board of Education has acted to restrict public comment at its meetings — enforcing an order to take effect in January that anyone interested in public comment must sign up online the week before.
Meanwhile, CTU has charged that the commission weighing school closings is biased in favor of charter schools.
CPS responded that the board is independent and that the charter issue is completely divorced from school closings.
But that's not the position community groups have taken. Marsha Godard of Action Now said this week that she was "outraged" by the proliferation of charters while neighborhood schools are being eliminated.
Once the commission makes its recommendations on school closings, Byrd-Bennett plans another round of community engagement before any final decisions are made ahead of a state-imposed deadline at the end of March.
Yet by that time it may be too late to rebuild trust with communities targeted for school closures.