Board meeting December 19, 2012 denies facts reported earlier in the Tribune, delays public participation until the afternoon...
Following protests the night before and the morning of the Board's meeting, the Chicago Board of Education met on the morning of December 19, 2012, and devoted most of the time of the meeting to pushing back public participation, and then to listening to a stream of people who had cornered the new CPS on-line sign-in process to speak out on behalf of charter schools and other school reform projects.
Anyone that has worked in the Chicago Public Schools for any length of time knows that you have to ignore the lies, theatrics and hypocrisy in order to serve our kids. But on this, the first week of Track E winter recess, I took advantage of the freedom from my instructional duties to wander on down to 125 S. Clark to see how my bosses did their monthly duty before the public at the Chicago Board of Education meeting at 125 S. Clark. Reporting for Substance, I learned a lot quickly.
December 19, 2012, had the makings of the perfect political storm. By 8 a.m., the Chicago Tribune was reporting that an internal CPS plan for school closures actually existed. Despite the facts, Board President David Vitale and CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett’s assurances to the contrary continued. The Tribune investigation, based on a document prepared by CPS and dated September 10 (ironically the first day of the strike), revealed that there was a CPS plan to close possibly 100 inner city schools. This latest revelation was sure to shadow the proposed discussions around the approval of four new charters on the agenda for the December 19 Board meeting, in addition to the four previously approved.
The charter schools expansion was one of the main items on the Board's agenda for its last meeting of 2012.
CPS officials still claim that school closings are a separate issue from charter approval and openings, but I’ll come back to that.
The meeting was called to order after holiday music. The Smyser Elementary School String Orchestra provided holiday music, and then the charter promotionals began: Accolades were paid to People Magazine's "Teacher of the Year" from Noble Street’s "Rauner College Prep" campus, Robert Vega. Vega's jazz band students played a beautifully rehearsed piece, providing the perfect musical introduction to a well-orchestrated pro-charter board meeting.
With a quorum established, Board President David Vitale led the board in extending congratulations and goodbye to Board member Rodrigo Sierra, who will be moving on to another infamous bureaucracy, the Chicago Housing Authority.
Then heartfelt condolences were extended by the Board and Barbara Byrd Bennett to the family of Reverend Lewis Flowers, a West Side community activist, who recently passed.
Then came Barbara Byrd Bennett’s task to deny the existence of the school closure list. Despite the overwhelming facts presented in the article were to be refuted, Byrd Bennett didn't. All she did was claim the article, which reported that a September 10, 2012 plan to close more than 100 schools and open charters, was not true.
Byrd Bennett then launched into a glossy PowerPoint presentation titled “Call for Quality Schools”, which purported to explain how CPS got to the point of facing a further expansion of charter schools at this meeting. This Power Point was, to the surprise of many present, the first of three major Power Points.
The "Call for Quality Schools Recommendations" Power Point presentation celebrated the Board’s “exemplary” work on identifying the needs of the district, which by their own actions reflect only the need for expansion in two military academies and one magnet high school. The rest of the “new options” were confined to expansion of wall-to-wall IB programs for five high schools, STEM programs for five other high schools, and four previously approved charters. According to Byrd-Bennett, these creations are necessary to provide "quality options" for Chicago's people. No mention was made of the fact that most people have been demanding quality from their neighborhood regular public schools.
Byrd Bennett claimed that the proposed new programs would provide families with high quality “options” for their children. She also assured the public that none of these new charters would be housed in any school closed for underutilization. She spoke of a follow-up phase of a “rigorous engagement plan” with communities with underutilized schools, and assured Board members that no school will be closed, or opened without both Board and public input and support.
Carly Bolger, the recent transfer from New Jersey office of Charter Schools, now Director of the Office of New Schools at CPS, found herself on the hot seat during the "Call for Quality Schools" Power Point, which she narrated. Board Member Adrea Zopp, who serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Urban League, laid into a fierce round of questioning around the approval of a charter without a specific site placement. She told Bolger and Byrd-Bennett that she would not vote in favor of any charter school whose proposed location was not certain. Although it was never addressed head on, this line of questioning was certainly probing the existence of a premeditated school-closing list that was exposed by the earlier Tribune article.
This spirited and skeptical exchange was the highpoint of what was otherwise a celebration of charter schools. While Board Members Jesse Ruiz and Dr. Mahalia Hines occasionally questioned the charter accountability process, Board Member Zopp by far led the charge on a critical inquiry into CPS’s cryptic plans for school closure and charter placement.
What must have felt like an eternity to both Ms. Bolger and Ms. Bennett, soon passed as the discussion turned to two other Power Points. One was a presentation on Minority and Women Contracts, presented by Opal Walls and members of the Purchasing Department.
The Board then got another Power Point, a report given by Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley on the Capital Improvement Plan. Cawley claimed that Power Point showcased CPS’s laughable “high level of accountability and transparency” on Board contracts.
The Pubic Comment portion of the meeting was a non-stop parade of pro-charter testimonials given by Parent graduates from Stand For Children University, clout heavy pastors from Roseland and Englewood, Charter CEO’s and coached students reading written and rehersed speeches.
The only breath of reality came when CTU Financial Secretary and CTU Organizer Norine Gutenkanst stood up as the lone voices in the real school reform wilderness, crying for more transparency and for the Board to address the real lack of trust that teachers and the public have in light of the recent Tribune article.
But that too was short lived, as the pro-charter carnival continued.
Eventually, the Board went into Executive Session, as it always does. To the surprise of many people, when the Board came out, it only voted to approve two of the four new charter schools that had been on the agenda, but two were deferred after Barbara Byrd Bennett said she wanted to further check, the Board voted unanimously to approve "Intrinsic" and "Chicago Collegiate" charter schools. This brings to a total of eleven new charter schools and campuses opening in September 2013, at a time when CPS says it has a hundred thousand "underutilized seats" across the system.
The "Foundations" and "Orange" charter schools which had been on the agenda for passage (and which were listed in the Power Point) were deferred. All of the other school actions on the agenda were approved.
Now I know why veteran CPS teachers always referred to these board meetings as “the circus”. It really is the greatest show on earth.