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Judge Backs CPS on Trumbull Closure, But Questions Special Ed Policy

By Adeshina Emmanuel | August 14, 2013 10:24am
 Trumbull Local School Council Chair James Morgan and his son James, formerly a Trumbull student before the school closed this year.
Trumbull Local School Council Chair James Morgan and his son James, formerly a Trumbull student before the school closed this year.
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DNAinfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

DOWNTOWN — A federal judge Tuesday denied an injunction to halt the closing of Lyman Trumbull Elementary School — but still delivered a ruling that cast doubt on the formula that district officials used to decide which schools to shutter.

The suit's plaintiffs were two Trumbull kids with disabilities, their mothers and the pro-Trumbull community group Friends of Trumbull. It claimed the utilization formula Chicago Public Schools used to determine which schools would be closed did not take disabled students into account.

Former Trumbull assistant principal Cindy Zucker was at the hearing and described the case as "David versus Goliath." 

While Judge Gary Feinerman said the school's supporters did not make their case for keeping the school open, he did point out the strength of the utilization argument in explaining his ruling "out of consideration for the plaintiffs."

"If in fact they do appeal, I want to make sure they are shooting at the right targets," Feinerman said.

He asked the question: Does a utilization formula without adjustments for schools with high percentages of special education students violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?

"The answer to that question is probably," the judge said, adding that it was possible that schools with a high proportion of self-contained special education classrooms would suffer from reduced efficiency under the formula and thus be more vulnerable to shuttering.

But the judge still ruled in the school district's favor.

He said the district dropping the utilization threshold from 80 to 70 percent mitigated some of the lack of adjustments for special ed students and was "a viable accommodation."

The burden of proof on part of the plaintiffs was to show the extent of harm to children, but Feinerman contended that the most harm was done at the moment of the announcement that Trumbull would close, and that assessing further harm was dependent on the quality of receiving schools and continuity of support and services.

He said CPS is "doing an exemplary job," at ensuring these things so far, and pointed out that all of the receiving schools were academically superior to Trumbull. Trumbull Local School Council Chair James Morgan and other Trumbull supporters at the hearing scowled and quietly muttered their disagreement when the judge said this.

Plaintiffs claimed discrimination based on the fact that Trumbull students enrolled in special education programs were assigned to either McCutcheon and McPherson elementary schools, but not top-rated Chappell School.

But Feinerman said that McCutcheon and McPherson were more equipped to handle special education programs than Chappell, and that this was not necessarily done with discriminatory reasoning, but in the best interest of kids. He also suggested that disputes about placements of special education students should exhaust other appeal processes available within CPS before being considered in court.

The judge also said allegations that closing Trumbull would hurt property values and Andersonville businesses were "purely speculative," and that an injunction to stop the closing at this point would harm CPS and its ability to "decide best how to allocate resources," as well as parents pleased with their students' receiving schools.

In a statement, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the district was "pleased with the court's ruling today, which reaffirms our belief that every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high quality education."

Miriam Hallbauer, senior attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation, which served as the plaintiff's legal team, told DNAinfo Chicago after the ruling that she "couldn't say yet," if her clients would appeal the judge's ruling or what their next steps might be, although she emphasized that her clients' argument about the space-use formula still holds a lot of weight.

But Morgan, a Trumbull father and LSC chair, said he doubts if they will appeal the ruling on the injunction. The fight to save Trumbull has already "been a rollercoaster ride," for parents and supporters, Morgan said.