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Updated 05/22/13 – 11:46 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Hours before a final vote by the Chicago Board of Education, Chicago Public Schools officials have agreed to back off of plans to close four of the 53 elementary schools targeted for closing at the end of the school year, Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz confirmed Wednesday morning.
Another school closing will be delayed for a year, and a school not on the closing list will be spared from a major staff overhaul known as a “turnaround.”
The Board of Education began meeting shortly after at 10:30 a.m. to discuss and vote on proposed school closings and turnarounds. Originally, the school closing list consisted of 53 elementary schools and one high school program. Four elementary schools have been taken off the list.
Ruiz said CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett has decided to withdraw her recommendations to close Marcus Garvey Elementary School, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, George Manierre Elementary School, and Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy.
“Barbara is going to recommend that these four not proceed, and will give us her final recommendation this morning,” Ruiz said. “I supported her decision, and she’s been very meticulous about every single school, and we’ve been working up until the last minute – until last evening, when I was having talks with different management at CPS – about what’s the right thing to do for our kids.”
If the Board of Education approves closing the rest of the schools Bennett has targeted for closing, 49 elementary schools would be shut down at the end of this school year. For a school to close, four of the six board members must agree. A 3-3 tie would result in a targeted school remaining open.
Board members are expected to take one vote on the schools they agree should be closed. All other schools would face individual votes.
Before the vote, there will be two hours of public comment on the school closings, and all 60 speaking slots have been filled.
Ruiz also confirmed the planned closing of Miriam Canter Middle School will be delayed at least a year.
Ruiz said there were “various reasons” behind the decisions to halt or delay the closings of those schools.
“Some of them, they have increasing enrollment trends, some have special programs for special needs children, and others are trending in the right direction in terms of their academics,” Ruiz said. “So there’s various reasons why she was consistently looking at each of the schools, each of the criterion, and making very difficult decisions for each of the communities impacted.”
Before the board meeting began Wednesday morning, a few dozen protesters gathered at CPS Headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. to call for an end to all school closings.
At one point, things became so heated as protesters tried to jam into CPS headquarters, that police had to swarm the lobby of the building and block the doors.
Several protesters sat in the lobby and refused to get up, and police and security officers pushed several protesters back.
Opponents of school closings said, no matter the result of Wednesday’s board meeting, they plan to fight school closings until the end. Several parents were in Springfield on Wednesday to lobby lawmakers for a proposed moratorium on school closings.
Wednesday morning, Chicago Teachers Union financial secretary Kristine Mayle said having four of the 53 elementary schools spared from closing is “good, but it’s not good enough.”
“We’re still concerned about those children in those 50 schools. Manierre had strong gang issues, and that’s probably why they pulled it off. There’s many other schools. What about Pullman? There’s a hit list out on Facebook about these kids, and we’re concerned about their safety,” she said.
Mayle said the decision to spare four schools from closing is just a way for CPS to try to appease opponents of the closings, and to divide affected parents.
“They purposely started with a list of 300 schools. They took it down to 100 or so, because they wanted to make it seem like they were listening to people,” Mayle said.
“They need to put this on pause right now. They haven’t done a thorough job at looking at this. They had sham hearings. They didn’t listen to people.”
She also questioned CPS claims that it needs to close so many schools because of low student enrollment, and because of an expected $1 billion budget shortfall next year.
“They’re still planning on opening 60 new charters in the next four years, so what is it? Is it a budget crisis? Are we out of students? Do we not have enough students to fill these rooms? Or is this some sort of another plan,” she said. “That’s what we feel it is.”
Meantime, Ruiz also confirmed Clara Barton Elementary School would not face a “turnaround” at the end of the school year.
A turnaround would have meant the entire staff at Barton would have been replaced, while students would have stayed at the school. Originally, Bennett had planned to have Barton turned over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which has overseen the turnarounds of several other public schools.
Ruiz said, as of Wednesday morning, the four school closings that Bennett plans to rescind and the one she plans to delay are the only changes to the list of 53 elementary schools targeted for closing.
“Those are the ones that I’m aware of, as of last night. It’s constantly changing,” Ruiz said.
The board will vote on the remaining closures at its meeting on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, a group of independent hearing officers issued reports opposing at least 13 of the planned closings, arguing the district has not adequately planned security measures for students who would be forced to travel through dangerous neighborhoods, or that the new schools were not clearly better than those being closed.
Only two of the four schools being spared closing – Mahalia Jackson and Manierre – were on the list of schools that hearing officers wanted kept open.
In the case of Mahalia Jackson Elementary, retired Judge David Coar said the district didn’t provide a sufficient transition plan to make sure students would be safe traveling to their new school, Fort Dearborn Elementary.
Coar acknowledged Jackson is underutilized, but said he believes the district can address the problem without closing the school. He also said it’s unclear if Fort Dearborn has the necessary equipment to meet the needs of the large number of special needs students at Jackson.
He noted Jackson is the only elementary school on the South Side serving deaf and hearing-impaired students, and provides a “unique learning environment” for disabled students.
Coar also said the district failed to provide a detailed plan to address the specific security needs for students who would be moved from Jackson to Fort Dearborn, as opposed to generalized discussions and generic proposals to deal with security in the abstract.
“Violence is a fact in the city of Chicago and in the neighborhoods involved in this school action in particular. There is no question that Jackson is underutilized. However, the safety of the youngest and most vulnerable children in the school system is a very serious thing, not to be addressed with generalities and vague promises,” Coar wrote.
It was not immediately clear which, if any, of those factors weighed into Bennett’s decision to halt her plan to close Jackson.