Two years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttered 50 low-enrollment schools in a move that enraged families on Chicago’s South and West sides, officials can’t say where many of the computers, desks, books and other items from those buildings ended up.
For more than six months, the Better Government Association pressed Chicago Public Schools to detail the location of the materials, presumably worth many millions of dollars.
Only recently did CPS acknowledge that it simply doesn’t know where much of the classroom equipment is – blaming the school system’s disgraced former CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, for poor record keeping. Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in 2015 to accepting kickbacks and bribes in exchange for awarding CPS contracts.
“Unfortunately, the previous CPS administration did not adequately manage or keep records on the day-to-day operations of the transition logistics,” said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner.
Byrd-Bennett, who is awaiting formal sentencing, could not be reached for comment. She reported to Emanuel. Her successor, Forrest Claypool, reports to City Hall as well.
The 50 schools were shuttered in a cost-cutting move that caused uproar as many families regarded their schools as neighborhood institutions and feared moving their children across gang boundaries to other schools.
The principals of schools that ended up accepting the 12,000 displaced children were able to go to warehouses and pick equipment that had been moved out of the 50 closed buildings, Bittner said.
But the BGA found record keeping was extremely lax when it came to charting what was moved out of the closing buildings, and what was moved to schools that remained open.
Based on interviews and CPS records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the BGA found:
- There are more than 9,400 desktop and laptop computers listed on inventories of schools that were closed. Of those, 3,724 were “redeployed” into other schools or to CPS headquarters, according to CPS. The rest of the computers were “disposed” of – but how or to who isn’t clear.
- More than 33,000 chairs and roughly 12,000 desks and 6,000 tables were listed in good condition in the closed schools when they were shuttered, CPS records show. About 9,500 of those chairs, 3,900 desks and 1,000 tables apparently were moved into other buildings. It’s unclear where the rest of the equipment ended up.
- Where all the books ended up is a mystery – CPS had no records on their location.
CPS originally awarded an $8.9 million contract to Ohio-based Global Workplace Solutions to undertake moving materials from the 50 schools and other logistics. But taxpayers ended up paying the company about $25 million, records show. CPS officials have said the cost soared because there were more items than originally anticipated.
Robert Faillo, chief financial officer of Global Workplace Solutions, wouldn’t get into specifics because he said there’s a clause in the contract that prevents the company from disclosing information.
The school closings were supposed to save $43 million annually in operating expenses, and hundreds of millions of dollars more in future capital costs. But CPS has never fully itemized that projected savings, so the totals are questionable, especially with the lack of accounting of equipment that had been in those 50 schools.
Former ComEd CEO and Chairman Frank Clark chaired a mayoral commission that in 2013 concluded CPS had the capacity to close as many as 80 schools. In 2015, Emanuel appointed Clark president of the Chicago Board of Education, and more school closings could be on the horizon as early as next year.
Clark did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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Jackie Leavy, a long-time budget and schools advocate who is the pro bono adviser for the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a state task force, was briefed on the BGA’s findings. Leavy said: “There are so many under-resourced schools that it is just a tragedy for stuff to go to waste. Public officials have a duty to conserve public resources.”
Two sources who did not want to be publicly named and were involved in the logistics of the school closings said they tried their best to get equipment to the schools serving displaced students or to other buildings that could use the materials. But the sheer magnitude of all the items, poor inventory lists and the short timeframe to clear out the 50 schools made the task nearly impossible, the sources said.
“A handful of schools we could have moved no problem,” a source said.
Complicating CPS record keeping more: Only 60 percent of the students from the 50 schools ended up at schools designated for them, which were called “welcoming schools.” The rest spread throughout the district. So when displaced students failed to enroll in the welcoming schools, principals asked movers to pick up items they had just dropped off, one of the sources relayed. Other schools got more students than expected and then asked for extra equipment, the source said.
Sarah Hainds, a Chicago Teachers Union researcher who serves on the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, noted that almost no one involved in the school closings still works for the school district and the way those ex-employees are treated is, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Hainds said the school closings were a big disruption to communities – mostly black and Latino neighborhoods – which makes it even more important that the district prove they were worth it both financially and academically for students.
CPS could not provide a dollar value for the equipment that had been in the 50 schools. Some of that equipment was initially purchased with federal money.
CPS records on where equipment ended up
CPS inventory of 50 closed schools
Mason High School is missing
Note: Spreadsheets were obtained from CPS under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The BGA was provided two inventory spreadsheets for most of the 50 schools closed. Some of those spreadsheets have duplicate information. CPS provided no furniture inventory for Sexton Elementary School and no information for Mason High School.