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The race for City Hall

Jobs and schools promise to be top issues in next year’s city elections. The mayor’s education agenda faces its toughest test in the African-American communities that gave him strong support in 2011.

Minimal cost savings for closing schools: analysis

School action guidelines released today confirm what officials have been quietly telling people for months: CPS officials will focus on school utilization in considering what schools to close, and will pay less attention to school achievement.

The strategy is a big change from previous years, when school performance was one of the main criteria in determining whether to close a school.

“We need to make some decisions about right-sizing the district,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Under the guidelines, 310 schools are considered under-utilized, 140 are more than 50 percent under-utilized and 71 schools are considered overcrowded. The guidelines indicate that the decision to close, consolidate, phase-out or reconfigure the attendance boundary of a school will have a lot to do with whether there’s a school nearby to merge with or to send the students.

CPS officials were sharply criticized last year for offering up guidelines that left it unclear why one school was chosen over another for action. The district was also were taken to task for not changing the guidelines at all after the original draft was released.

Just weeks after being elevated to CEO, Byrd-Bennett said that she is committed to kick-starting “authentic” community engagement and that she won’t target a school unless she feels it has been fully vetted.

Some activists have called on the district to forego any actions this year so that the dust can settle on central office changes.

Yet Bryd-Bennett says she will not back away from closing down schools. “We have too many buildings and too few children,” she said. “I have to deal with the utilization issues.”

Wide range of estimates

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has claimed that CPS is over-capacity by 200,000 seats, recently officials put the figure at about 100,000.

Given the district’s projected budget deficit, officials are making the case that schools need to close to save money.  Byrd-Bennett said there are a wide range of estimates.

Catalyst Chicago requested an interview with a budget official to discuss these cost savings. CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler sent the following response:  “There really isn't enough info to provide on this topic to warrant an interview. “ 

Ziegler said that the district can expect to save between $500,000 and $800,000 each year per school building, depending on the “nature” of the building.

“Savings generally come from eliminating those positions that go with the building itself - a principal, clerk, maybe custodian,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Other savings generally come from reduced utility, maintenance and repairs costs.”

At that rate, the district would save between $50 million and $80 million a year if officials close 100 schools and shutter them completely. With a projected $1 billion deficit for the next three years, only about 15 percent could be made up by closing schools.

Over the next few months, community activists and district officials will likely haggle over whether that is enough of a savings to warrant the disruption that is caused by closing a school.

The debate is complicated by the fact that CPS has not reaped the benefits of closing schools in the past. Of the 76 schools closed since 2001, the vast majority of them—nearly 80 percent—now house a new school, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis.

Of those buildings still being used by CPS, 22 house charter schools and the rest are magnet, selective enrollment or small schools, such as Al Raby, located in the former Flower High campus.  

Repeat scenario?

One reason CPS is in this predicament now is that the district has opened new schools, while losing enrollment. Since 2001, the student population has dropped by 8 percent. The same scenario seems likely to repeat. According to Gates Compact signed by CPS and charter operators, it is expected that 60 charter schools will be opened over the next five years.

Byrd-Bennett said she knows that is a concern among communities, but that there’s no plan to close schools in order to make room for charter schools.

“That is where we get no respect from the community because they think there’s a plan in the bottom drawer,” she said.

When a school closes and eventually becomes a charter or magnet school, anecdotally it appears the savings have been minimal, if at all.  

A case in point: Lasalle II, the West Town version of the lauded Lincoln Park language school, is projected to cost CPS nearly $6 million this year and has a student body of about 621. In 2005, when it was still Andersen Community Academy, it had 687 neighborhood students and its budget was about $5 million, according to the 2005 CPS budget.

Charter schools aren’t much better.

Bunche Elementary in Englewood is one example. In the year it closed, CPS spent about $ 2.97 million on Bunche, according to the 2005 budget. At the time, it had 400 students and was closed for low performance. This year, the charter school that replaced it, Providence-Englewood, has 406 students and its budget is virtually the same at $2.96 million.

Another example is Donoghue Elementary School. In 2002, the school had 414 students and a budget of $3.1 million. This year, CPS budgeted $3.6 million for the University of Chicago-Donoghue campus, which has 475 students.

The Donoghue campus is 52 percent under-utilized, according to CPS.

Realistic expectations

CPS’ utilization standards focus on the size of the building compared to the number of students enrolled. But having a small student body is more costly than a bigger one, regardless of the building’s size, says Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century Fund in Washington D.C. 

Washington D.C. is looking at closing schools that have fewer than 350 students, she says. In addition to a principal and support staff, small schools often wind up with small class sizes and therefore extra teachers.

“So if you have 40 students in 4th grade, then you have to split it 20 and 20,” she explains. CPS allocates a teacher for every group of 28 students, so in a case like this, the school would have capacity for 16 more students.

“I am not saying that Chicago doesn’t have a distribution problem, but that closing schools isn’t going to solve it,” Filardo says. “Instead, the district needs to look outside the box.”

Filardo points out that charter operators often want to keep their student population small. 

That is true in Chicago. On average, charter elementary schools have about 100 fewer students than neighborhood schools, and 21 of them have fewer than 350 students, according to an analysis of CPS enrollment data.

Also, all but one of the district’s classical schools—recently named the best in the state—have fewer than 350 students.

School districts need to manage expectations concerning the savings that come from school closings, says Emily Dowdall, a senior associate for the Philadelphia Research Institute, which is part of the Pew Charitable Trust.

In a report examining the experience of closing schools in six urban school districts, including Chicago, Dowdall found that the savings are minimal. The amount saved depends on whether the building is sold and whether the closings are done in tandem with large-scale layoffs.

Selling buildings has been a particular challenge as many times closed buildings are in poor neighborhoods where property values aren’t high. Also, vacant school buildings often don’t have other uses, and are expensive to tear down in order to repurpose the land.

“The closed buildings are unlikely to be a windfall for any district,” Dowdall says. “And when they sit vacant, they become eyesores. I think everyone can agree that no one wants to see a big empty building in the middle of a neighborhood.”

According to Dowdall’s report, only four CPS buildings have been demolished since 1998, one of them to become a hospital parking lot.

Dowdall points out that in several cities, projected savings have fallen short. In Milwaukee, district officials said they would save $10 million a year by closing 20 schools, but wound up only saving $6.6 million annually.

Yet she says cash-strapped school district’s officials often make the case that every dollar counts.

A recent audit of 23 school closings in Washington D.C. found that it cost money instead of saving money--$40 million, with some of those costs the result of shuttered, unused buildings falling into disrepair.

Moving supplies and students, including busing for some children to get to new schools, was expensive. Also, the closings accelerated enrollment loss and, since the district is reimbursed based on student population, the district’s coffer’s dwindled.

“Closing schools,” Filardo says, “is not cost-neutral.”


Rod Estvan wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

re: excellent article

Ms. Karp's article was breathtaking in its excellence. The contrast between this article and yesterday's Chicago Tribune editiorial titled "Why some CPS schools must close," are significant. The difference is the editiorial board at the Tribune did almost no research other than to talk to CPS, whereas Ms. Karp made a real attempt to examine this issue in some detail.

Based on a reasonable cost benefit analysis some schools if closed and rapidly torn down could potentially save CPS some money, other closings would save little or nothing at all. The idea that CPS will realize much if any money on the sale of closed schools in communities with very low property values is simply absurd. CPS is likely to become the owner of 100 or more empty lots if this plan really does materialize.

Rod Estvan

Anonymous wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Rod--closed schools in depressed surroundings make money for

the special people who buy the property on the cheap and hold the property for profit. The profitiers can then sell the property back to the city. Just look at the toxic proprty sold to on teh far SE side. Virdoliak names involved there.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago


Thank you, thank you, Sarah Karp.

Ed Vyrdoliak's niece made a ton of money on a worthless small piece of brownfield where a gas station and failing car wash once stood facing the extremely busy and dangerous Indianapolis Boulevard in John Pope's 10th ward. And it is very far from the original Gallistel campus. Nice work if you can get it.

Closing schools purposely disrupts communities, forcing poor families with children to move out in order to find schools close to home.
Then the real estate developers can come in. Nice work if you can get it.

Rod Estvan wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

re: making money off of depressed property

Yes there was money to be made in depressed property. But there is also money to be lost and that is in part why CPS Board President Scott shot himself. In order to make money on depressed property you need a demand for the property, the City of Chicago has overall a declining population. The driving force behind the decline is the collapse of jobs for people with only high school education's or less in the city and suburbs. Its driver is the systematic movement of these jobs off shore. We are now actually seeing a decline in white collar jobs in the city in the retail sector in particular as more and more shoping is being done via the internet.

CPS might be able to sell off property in areas near the Loop or higher income areas, if it sells off west side elementary schools and extremely far south schools it will not get much. Good luck to those who buy the property and if they end up making money more power to them.

The arguments that I see people making about property speculation and its intersection with school closings applies only under the assumption that the population of Chicago increases, it is decreasing. Because of the decline in our national economy the gentrification in Chicago has slowed to a crawl and given the total size of the city it has its actual limits.

I agree that school closings destablize communities, but many of the communities we are discussing have long ago been destablized. I agree it is a depressing situation as was what happened in Detriot. But the central question facing CPS now because of many choices it has made and the ongoing crisis in our state is fiscal survival and closing schools on a mass scale will not solve that problem as Ms. Karp's excellent article demonstrates.

CPS has a legal ability to buy back land if it needs it, its called eminent domain. But CPS will actually lose money on school closings if many are turned over to charter schools or very careful analysis is not done on where the displaced children are going to go.

Rod Estvan

Paul Echols wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

School Needs

There are quite a few schools in the Englewood area that have very low enrollment. Those schools should be turned around or closed. Some schools have rooms and rooms of books and computers sitting in them; but no students.The reaks of student body. Like Principals have books and tables and chairs as a decoy to make the building look fully utilized. Those students would improve more in academics if their interior building was fully functioning. some of those schools are found in the Pershing Network. Those Network people walk around those schools, but they don't have many children to see. The children are just not there. And there should be a double check; because some Principals are probaly inflating their enrollment to just stay on board. Those children deserve the change. Some of the reasons why those children are not there; because with less children; less work from staff. So with a new something; should make it better.

close observer wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

some thoughts

A few thoughts:
1.If any of the under-enrolled/under-utilized schools are turned over to charters, then we know this whole process is a sham. If there are too few students, there is no justification to open even one new charter.
2. Since Rahm cares so much about the children, maybe he should consider the traumatic effect on children whose neighborhood school closes, then have to attend a school where they are totally unfamiliar with the neighborhood, the school, the teachers, and a new set of children to
meet. The powers that be were quite sensiive to this issue when Tim Cawley was granted a residency waiver because of the effect transferring to a new school would have on his child. Is Rahm sensitive to the needs of the children of Chicago,or only those of the North Shore?
3. The neighborhood school may, in some cases be the only anchor in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods. So where is the logic of further de-stabilization. Let's disconnect our youth a little more and then wonder why the youth murders continue.
4. Look at formulas for school utilization. They do not take into account room usage. Art rooms, music rooms, special ed. rooms, counseling offices, libraries( oops, so many schools do not have these) may show as empty rooms.
Considering cost savings may be negligible, why is there such a push to close schools?

Anonymous wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Close unfounded charter public schools

Close unfounded charter public schools and maintain traditional neighborhood public schools for the sake of community and prosperity and prevention of plutocracy as there is more violence/genocide in the communities of color as tenured and veteran teachers are laid-off and terminated from positions they held for 2 or 3 generations of students while educating the most at-risk inner-city students in the nation with unutilized God given potential -- put the students back in the underutilized schools and close pseudo charter public schools.. Charter public schools were founded and researched by Ray Budde, former professor at University of Massachuetts-Amherst, and advocated by Al Shanker former union AFT, UFT President. Charter public schools should have put teachers at the pinnacle of their careers, but instead they are used to destroy teaching careers and tenure.
America displaced teachers are "crying" for your help to regain our hard earned place in society as the pillars of education that we have been for so many years as we overcome "illiteracy" obstacles and educate children reading several levels below instructional level by no faught of their own, nor the teachers, as students are raised in low ses households without a print rich environment. If you let tenure teachers lose their tenure you weaken the middle-class for billionaire/millionaire privatization take-over or plutocracy - government run by the rich. Vote for integrity, not money. Save your democracy, save your veteran and tenured teachers. Vote Obama/Biden for 99%!

Anonymous wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

I wanted to share some

I wanted to share some salient university research on corporate-style educational reforms in New York City and New Orleans. Indiana University School of Education took a second look at a non-profit's evidence of success in those cities.

It found that in NYC, school closings harmed thousands of students, especially recent immigrants and students with disabilities. Then the displaced students overwhelmed the neighboring schools, sometimes sending them into closure, too.

In New Orleans, researchers found that children of immigrants and students with disabilities were much less likely to understand the school system and be able to access school choice.

Finally, IU found mayoral control to be anti-democratic.

It's worth reading.

School Reform and the Mind Trust Proposal: Another Look at the Evidence, Summer 2012

Chicago dad wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Ongoing change ignored

It's a given that population patterns will never remain static, so why is CPS not looking at a methodology for dealing with that rather than just closing buildings and consolidating populations? We need schools in every neighborhood. If new schools were built and old ones rehabbed around a core needs structure concept (lunch, office, library, labs, gym, etc.) on a large plot that allowed "portable" modular classroom space to be added or subtracted as needed, this issue could be rendered mute. Before all that, a much closer look is needed at the utilization formula to see if it has any basis in reality. From what I've seen so far it looks like that's not the case. Also, I'd rather seen the money currently being wasted on excessive testing and other fads and snake oil used on proven strategies like smaller class sizes and expanding early childhood education. The bottom line is that the whole school closing idea also ignores the absurdly inequitable way we fund education in the first place, as well as the question of why population has decreased here while overall it keeps going up like clockwork. Too many unasked and unanswered questions.

gkjdtyjdt wrote 2 weeks 1 day ago


Pure joy not prepared for the holidays, the Group still PlayStation Network was similar to Xbox Live for DDoS attacks over Christmas a few days unreachable (we reported).

lgvbjhgj wrote 1 week 2 days ago


Se il est bon et nécessaire d'apprendre de nos propres erreurs - les enseignements tirés de première main sont le plus doux des enseignants, après tout - nous ne devrions jamais escomptons des erreurs des autres comme un outil d'apprentissage précieux. Savoir ce que ne pas le faire est souvent aussi important que de savoir quoi faire

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