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The Mechanics
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Chicago Public Schools Thu Dec 15 2011

School Actions: Many More Raucous Meetings To Come

When Mayor Daley took full control of the schools in 1995, transforming the once semi-independent Board of Education into something more like a Department of Education under his direction, it "streamlined" the process for closing or altering schools. When he accelerated his privatization program with the Renaissance 2010 program, this meant that traumatic school closures, phaseouts, and "co-locations" were introduced into neighborhoods with little meaningful input from the community, and often with almost no notice.

The situation became intolerable enough to parents that members of the city's delegation to Springfield were actually motivated to act in opposition to the Mayor's wishes, which I don't need to tell you is not a particularly frequent occurrence. Like seeing a black swan, or an ice age.

In any case, the result was Senate Bill 620, sponsored by Iris Martinez in the Senate and Cynthia Soto in the House. The bill started out as a strong framework for ensuring community input on the Board of Education's school closure policy, went through the usual waterings-down, and ended up as something between strong and perfunctory. Better writers would think of a synonym for "moderate," but frankly I trust you guys to come up with your own synonyms. I'm empowering that way.

Speaking of empowering, the statute as finally enacted requires CPS to involve communities by mandating the schools CEO issue a notice of all impending "school actions," including closures, turnarounds, phase-outs and co-locations, and hold community meetings for public input. The statute provides in relevant portion,

Sec. 34-230. School action public meetings and hearings.

(a) By November 1 of each year, the chief executive officer shall prepare and publish guidelines for school actions. The guidelines shall outline the academic and non-academic criteria for a school action. These guidelines, and each subsequent revision, shall be subject to a public comment period of at least 21 days before their approval.

(b) The chief executive officer shall announce all proposed school actions to be taken at the close of the current academic year consistent with the guidelines, by December 1 of each year.

The bill goes on to require that the Board can make no decision on a school closure in less than sixty days from publication of notice that a school is being targeted, with a public hearing on the matter to be held no less than thirty days after the initial announcement. The initial notices also by law have to include the reasons the school is being "school action-d". Thus, this list from CPS, with attendant fact sheets. The Board has also hired consulting firms with expertise in "conflict resolution" to handle the public hearing process. CPS must hold at least three public meeting regarding the school action for each school, two of which must take place "in the community" where the school is situated.

This means a lot of opportunity for opponents of school actions to make themselves heard, but per the bill no official power to stop or alter the character of the actions. And as the Board is wholly appointed and unelected, there is little other recourse for residents opposed to the CEO's plan of action or the Board's decisions. This makes a little more clear why complete Mayoral control of school systems is often considered a first step to privatization overhauls, despite little evidence of its utility: it severs accountability at a critical point and concentrates decision-making at a higher and more remote tier of power.

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