Chicago School Officials Admit Shuttering Schools Won’t Save As Much Money As They Thought

Students stage a sit-in at Williams Elementary (Credit: OccupyCPS)

As Chicago Public Schools plan to close 54 schools and fire staff at 6 more, middle and high school students all over the city have protested the cuts by walking out of class en masse, sitting in hallways, and marching on City Hall. Still, the city has maintained that the closures are necessary to cut costs.

Except, as it turns out, CPS officials vastly overstated the savings they expected from closing the schools. When the plan was announced, CPS projected it would save $560 million in capital expenses over the next 10 years. Last week, they revised that estimate down by $122 million.

Now that some of the targeted schools are receiving their first reviews in years, CPS is discovering that the cost of repairing and upgrading the schools is much lower than expected. Initial estimates put one school’s upgrade cost at $16.3 million, overshooting the new estimate by $5 million. As the local alderman noted last month, “Clearly, if you wanted to make it top of the line, $16 million would be a nice investment. But if you just wish to maintain the school and keep it open, you’re more in the area of $4 or $5 (million).”

Schools have erupted into protests over the cuts. On Friday, about a hundred students staged a sit-in at Williams Elementary on Chicago’s south side. A few weeks earlier, more than 300 students from 25 schools boycotted state standardized tests. Test scores are one of the criteria CPS is using to identify which schools to close.

The closings disproportionately affect African American kids in low-income neighborhoods; 88 percent of the students being diverted to a new school are black, compared with .7 percent of white children who will be affected. Parents protest that the school closures will force their kids to walk through dangerous gang territories, exposing them to the gun violence that has taken the lives of hundreds of other children and teenagers in the city. Many parents demanded Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) to “walk the walk” that their children will have to take to get to their new schools.

In response, schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett “walked the walk” on Friday, flanked by Chicago’s police superintendent Garry McCarthy. After seeing the abandoned buildings, vacant lots and heavy traffic along one of these routes, Byrd-Bennett and McCarthy announced a “safe passage” plan to beef up police patrols at all the schools, clean up vacant lots, and tear down empty buildings. The city will spend $7 million to staff the routes.