UPTOWN — Teachers at two Uptown schools that could close this year under a Chicago Public Schools proposal were encouraged by a retired judge's call to delay the plan — but remain doubtful CPS officials will listen or reconsider.
This week, CPS released independent reviews of proposed closings and other school actions. The reports came from hearing officers — all retired judges — who conducted public hearings for schools potentially affected.
Graeme Stewart Elementary School would close under the proposal, send its students to Joseph Brennemann Elementary School, and its teachers would have to apply for open positions at Brennemann, if there are any. Joseph Stockton Elementary School students would be allowed to remain and would be joined by students and staff from Courtenay Elementary School, and the building would be named Courtenay school.
Stockton teachers also would have to apply for any open positions, with no guarantees.
Retired judge Charles R. Winkler oversaw the Stockton and Stewart hearings and recommended that CPS put brakes on plans to shutter the neighborhood schools because CPS is not expected to have a safety plan for the new schools ready until right before school starts in the fall.
"Since a definitive safety plan will not be ready until late August 2013, CPS should consider delaying the implementation of the proposal until the 2014-2015 school year," Winkler wrote.
In the case of the Stockton and Courtenay merger, Winkler advised CPS to "address and consider the plea to keep the Courtenay model intact: a 100 percent enrollment without boundaries."
Reached by phone Wednesday, Winkler declined to say much about his decisions but stood by them.
"I'm not comfortable with going any further than telling you that the report, if you read it carefully, explains" the recommendations, he said. He also declined to explain typos in his report that indicated the Stockton student body would be relocated, which is not true.
CPS said in a statement Wednesday: "The independent public hearing officers role is determine whether we are compliant with the requirements of the law and guidelines set forth in SB630, and we were found compliant with the law in both Stewart and Stockton."
The statement said that, "any conclusion included in a given hearing officer report reflect additional information the board can use as part of its decision-making around CEO Byrd-Bennett's school recommendations, but does not prevent the board from voting for or against any of the CEO recommendations. "
CPS Corporate Counsel James Bebley said in written responses to other hearing officers' recommendations that he "respectfully" disagreed with the advice, that hearing officers exceeded their "authority by failing to apply the law and guidelines as promulgated."
Derek Bridges, an outspoken and untenured Stockton teacher who said he has been reprimanded verbally for speaking out about the proposed closing, said, "It sounds like CPS won't listen to the hearing officers," even though the officers were "well-respected people that they sent in."
"To completely disregard what they say out of hand shows what a sham this whole thing has been," Bridges said.
Bridges praised Winkler and other hearing officers for "really listening and paying attention."
"They were able to really look at the details and see what's going on — something CPS has not done at higher levels," Bridges said.
Stewart science teacher Jen Lewin said she was "glad that somebody is recognizing these things that we've been saying." But she still believes that regardless of Winkler's report, CPS will "make the decisions they want to make."
"We're cautiously optimistic," she said, also mentioning that crews were at the school this week, "counting textbooks, computers, everything," for CPS, in preparation for the proposed closing.
Wednesday was a half-day for students, but teachers stayed at both schools for afternoon "professional development" sessions focused on easing any potential emotional or mental effects of the CPS plan on students.
The Stockton teachers were joined by staff from Courtenay. Several teachers described the session as "awkward," and said a lot of teachers from the two schools weren't exactly excited to mingle.
One teacher joked that the meeting was, "Mostly segregated ... just like CPS."
But Bridges noted "the reality" of the situation.
"Most of us won't be working with them next year," he said.