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Independent Hearing Officers Oppose Plans To Close 13 Schools

Updated 05/07/13 - 3:15 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Independent hearing officers enlisted to review plans to close 53 Chicago Public Schools at the end of the school year have opposed at least 13 of the proposed closings.

According to reports made public Tuesday, hearing officers raised concerns about students being forced to walk through dangerous neighborhoods to reach new schools, or a lack of proof that new schools were better than the ones slated to close.

Hearing officers opposed closing Buckingham, Calhoun North, Delano, Mahalia Jackson, King, Manierre, Mayo, Morgan, Overton, Stewart, Stockton, and Williams Multiplex and Williams Preparatory Academy – which share the same campus.

RELATED - School Closing Reports:

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Chicago Public Schools officials said, in the majority of cases, hearing officers found CPS complied with state-mandated guidelines for closing schools. In nine cases, hearing officers found CPS was not in compliance with those rules, but CPS officials dispute that.

"A review of those nine reports by the Board of Education's Law Department found that hearing officers either misinterpreted the requirements of state law or exceeded the scope of their authority outlined by this law, and that the recommendations are in fact in compliance," CPS officials said in an email.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the hearing officers' reports would be one of several tools used by the Board of Education before a final vote on school closings later this month.

"Hearing officer reports provide information that the Board of Education can use as part of a thorough review before its scheduled vote on May 22," she said. "We are grateful for the work and dedication hearing officers have brought to this process. CPS will continue to engage parents and communities, as we have from the very start, on finalizing detailed transition plans in the coming weeks."

In the cases of the 13 schools where hearing officers specifically opposed the district's closing plans, they cited a variety of concerns, from the safety of the neighborhoods where kids would have to travel to get to their new schools to the quality of the schools where students would be transferred.

For example, in the case of Delano, hearing officer Clifford Meacham said the district did not acknowledge at public hearings that Melody Elementary, the proposed "welcoming school" for Delano students, was on academic probation, while Delano was not.

"This omission alone renders the draft transition plan deficient for failing to provide parents with relevant and material information reasonably necessary to allow the parents, students, and Board to evaluate the proposal," Meacham said.

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.

CBS 2's Dorothy Tucker reports, that the findings give parents who have kids at Jackson some hope.

At Jackson, parents worry about students crossing the tracks to get to the new school.

"They're not gonna think nothing of standing on the track," said one parent. "C'mon. We try and teach them better, but they don't do what you tell them."

For two of the schools -- Stewart and Stockton -- hearing officers opposed closing those facilities at the end of this school year, and instead recommended delaying the closings until the end of the 2014-15 school year to allow more time to come up with a definitive safety plan for students who would be transferred to other schools, and be forced to travel through dangerous neighborhoods.

In other cases, hearing officers questioned the validity of CPS claims that students would be sent to better schools. Hearing officer Carl McCormick noted that, under the plan to close Overton Elementary, students would be transferred to Mollison Elementary, even though both schools are among the lowest performing in the city.

He said it's unlikely that Mollison would enhance the education of students coming from Overton.

"We must ask, is it relevant or significant that the higher-performing school is rated in the lowest academic level and is on probation? This is tantamount, using a food metaphor, to the promise of an omelet with a crisp waffle. Then what is actually delivered are broken eggs, whose contents are oozing out, and a burnt pancake," McCormick said. "If the concept of a higher-performing school is to have substantive meaning, the mere fact of a mathematical variance between two schools with low academic performance and on probation is insufficient to be deemed a higher-performing school for the purpose of school action."

In the case of at least one other school, Near North, the hearing officer did not oppose the proposed closing, but she did raise concerns about how the district would address the needs of special needs students who would be affected.

RELATED - Near North Hearing Officer's Report

"The greatest concern of parents and educators is the disruption that this move will cause for fragile students with special needs who do not take well to changes," hearing officer Cheryl Starks wrote. "This closure will be a major change, which will require a great deal of resources and finesse on the part of CPS and school staff. The Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services will be available to discuss nonpublic options for students who may not be able to attend Montefiore. However, for those who do, it will be extremely difficult, not all of the students will be able to make the move. The Board will have to ensure that a great deal of resources is available for this tremendous undertaking."

She also raised concerns about moving students from Near North to Montefiore, which she said "has a long and negative history."

"It would be especially difficult for any students to deal with the stigmatism of attending a school with a bad reputation," she wrote. "If the Board insists on closing Near North and Buckingham, it should seriously consider changing Montefiore's name."

The Chicago Board of Education will vote on the proposed school closings on May 22.

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