New look at Chicago school buildings finds half underused

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Half of all Chicago public schools are underused, based on a new building utilization formula unveiled Wednesday.


The new formula is a critical one for many CPS schools as underuse can make a school vulnerable to closure or to sharing its building with another school, such as a charter. Both options triggered opposition in the past.


Four times more schools are underused than overcrowded under the formula, which includes charter schools.


The breakdown: 336 schools underused, including 68 high schools; 77 schools overcrowded, including eight high schools; and 249 schools used “efficiently,” including 59 high schools.


“It makes you wonder what was going on under Mayor Daley’s watch that so many of these schools have become underutilized,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education. “Has the taxpayers’ money been completely wasted over the last 15 years building facilities that weren’t needed?”


The new utilization formula, along with data and proposals involving CPS-owned and leased facilities, was posted at New utilization rates were listed at each school’s website.


“These reports illuminate the complex facility challenges facing our district,” Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said in a statement.


To establish the elementary utilization formula, officials used proportions found in the new elementary school construction prototype, which contains 30 general education classrooms, with 30 students per room and nine “ancillary” rooms holding such things as special education classes, art and science labs. That means roughly 77 percent of all classrooms in prototype buildings hold general education classes of 30 students each.


Schools within plus or minus 20 percent of this 77 percent ideal are now considered “efficient.” Rooms with more than 600 square feet can be considered “classrooms,” and in some cases, smaller rooms can be counted as “half-classrooms,” one CPS official said.


Contrary to past formulas, the new one counts only “permanent classrooms” — not leased or mobile classrooms.


Don Moore of Designs for Change questioned whether the new formula reserves enough space for the kind of ancillary classes often found in coveted magnet schools. Under the 20-percent leeway allowed in the new formula, up to 97 percent of a school’s classrooms can be devoted to general education classes, leaving only 3 percent of a building’s space for such things as a library and special education rooms with smaller class size.


One CPS official defended CPS’ past building boom, saying the system built schools for years under Daley to relieve severe overcrowding. However, at the other end of the spectrum, the official said, the district previously never set a firm standard on “underuse.’’ It has used both under 40 percent occupied and under 50 percent occupied in the past as thresholds for considering closure.


Chicago Teachers Union financial secretary Kristine Mayle said the union was researching the new formula, which she predicted would be used to justify “what schools they want to target for [takeover by or sharing with] charter schools.”


Every school’s utilization rate could be found in the past in one spreadsheet on the CPS website, if someone knew where to look for it, Mayle said. CPS claims that the publication of school-by-school utilization rates amounts to increased “transparency’’ are lame, she said.


“This is 15 years of the same stuff,” said Mayle about the use of utilization formulas. “They are putting lipstick on a pig. They’ve made it seem like they have done something but they actually haven’t.


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