CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools used money from a grant from the foundation operated by Wal-Mart to buy ad space on websites and run YouTube videos discussing the plan to close 54 schools citywide.
CPS spokesman Dave Miranda said the spots are "educational" and "not an ad campaign," and the primary goal is to spread awareness about community meetings scheduled to discuss each closure. The closures, championed by new CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, aim to chip away at the $1 billion budget deficit facing CPS next fiscal year.
"It's to educate folks about what the process is going to be like, what the meetings are and what we're doing to take care of kids and improve the quality of education in welcoming schools," he said.
Miranda said the ads were funded with a portion of a $478,000 grant awarded to the school district by the Walton Family Foundation, which is operated by the family behind Wal-Mart.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which has been a driving force in the opposition to Byrd-Bennett's closure plan, called the commercials and banner ads "propaganda."
"We don't appreciate the outside influence that these anti-union organizations have," CTU President Karen Lewis told DNAinfo.com Tuesday. She pointed out that representatives from the Walton Family Foundation were on site at a series of community meetings organized by the district to gather public input as the closure list was whittled down.
"There's nothing about [CPS] that's transparent or democratic, and they keep asking, 'How do we build trust?'" Lewis said. "Well you don't build trust using corporate propaganda."
Union officials said they don't believe concerns raised at future community meetings will be considered by the district, though CPS has guaranteed that there will be three rounds of hearings for each school before any decisions are finalized.
"It's clearly a method they're using to try and sell a highly unpopular program that will have tremendous, disruptive consequences for the most vulnerable communities in our city," said Jackson Potter, a spokesman for the union.
The Walton Family Foundation, which has awarded grants to fund the expansion of charter school programming nationwide, earmarked the CPS grant specifically for community engagement outreach, Catalyst Chicago reported in January. CPS has received more grants from the foundation to facilitate charter programs than any other school system in the nation.
Miranda said the online campaign, which began March 25 and will run through at least May, is "not related to any criticism" CPS has received.
"There's not taxpayer money being spent on this," Miranda said. "It's grants that were specifically for community engagement to explain why and how this is going to happen."
The web ads redirect to a CPS page titled "Quality Schools," which hosts information on the closures compiled for parents and school staff, as well as a "data" page that breaks down the numbers and serves as a platform for posting questions and concerns.
"We’re holding community meetings about our plans for school consolidation," one ad reads. "Find one in your neighborhood."
In a YouTube ad, Byrd-Bennett talks about a lack of resources that "tears" her heart. An "underutilization" problem is the impetus for the closures, Byrd has said in the past.
"We cannot continue to tell our parents that we’re providing a quality education for our children, and we know we are not," Byrd says in the video, which had more than 77,000 views as of Tuesday morning. "This is the first step to ensuring a guarantee for every child in Chicago Public Schools."
CPS ads also began appearing on CTA trains and buses March 9. Those ads seek community feedback on CPS facilities as part of the creation of a state-mandated 10-year master facilities plan. The ads have drawn 700 responses so far, Miranda said.
The CTA banners are also paid for by the community engagement grant, but are unrelated to CPS school closings, Miranda said.
But Potter said teachers are skeptical of whether the community input collected at these meetings will impact the school board's decision.
"It's a farce," he said. "It's obviously just designed to give the appearance of democratic input, and in reality what we're hearing from the mayor and the functionaries that they've appointed to oversee the process is that they're not going to budge. That they're set and firm in their decision."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last week that the "process" of choosing which schools will close this year is complete and the time for negotiation has ended. Byrd-Bennett has said that the decision is now in the School Board's hands, although she said the district still is seeking community input.
The closures are expected to save $560 million over the next 10 years, CPS has said, much of which will fund improvements to the facilities and curriculums at the district's remaining schools, from updated air conditioning to a supply of iPads for every student in some grades. They will shutter a total of 53 schools plus one high school program that was previously operated within a grade school, at Mason, and leave 61 buildings vacant across the city.
The teachers union led thousands of protesters Wednesday, who poured into Daley Plaza to rally against the closures. Detractors have called the plan racist and raised concerns over the dangers of forcing children to cross gang boundaries to attend new schools.