By Joe Ruppel
Posted: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013
A U.S. District Court denied an injunction to reopen Trumbull Elementary on Tuesday after it was closed along with 49 other Chicago Public schools in May.
In his ruling, Judge Gary Feinerman said reopening the school would ultimately do more harm than good and would interfere with Chicago Public Schools’ ability to decide how to best allocate resources in a difficult financial climate.
James Morgan, the former chair of the Local School Council who also has two sons who attended the school, said the court took CPS’ word “as golden” during the “roller coaster” proceedings.
“CPS is going to continue to get away with schemes behind closed doors,” Morgan said.
In a statement, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she was “pleased with the court’s ruling.”
The lawsuit against CPS was filed on June 19 on the behalf of three special education students, two parents and the community organization Friends of Trumbull.
The hearing saw data-laden arguments from the prosecution and defense. However, both sides struggled to provide a clear interpretation of the data, or provide context, which illuminated the difficulty of a by-the-numbers approach to education.
The plaintiffs charged that CPS had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by using a discriminatory formula for calculating school utilization that penalized schools requiring additional space for special education students. The formula was based on the assumption of 30 students per classroom, while self-contained special education classrooms can have a maximum of 13 students.
Trumbull, located in the North Side’s Andersonville neighborhood, had a high number of special education students, who make up about one-third of the school’s enrollment. CPS calculated Trumbull’s utilization at 54 percent, well below the 70 percent mark needed for immunity from closure, while alternative assessments presented at the hearing calculated that rate as high as 68 percent.
In his closing remarks, Judge Feinerman posed the question of whether the utilization standards, without adjustments to account for larger proportions of special education students, violated the ADA.
“The answer to that question is probably,” Feinerman said.
However, Feinerman said the lowering of the immunity threshold from 80 percent to 70 percent was a sufficient adjustment to account for varying student populations.
Nick Zayas, a former physical education teacher and LSC member at Trumbull, said he sees the lowered threshold as a convenient way for CPS to skirt the issue of a discriminatory formula.
“I think they had a number of schools they wanted to close and at the 80 percent mark they still weren’t there. So they went down to 70 percent, which dropped that number closer to 50 schools,” Zayas said.
Other concerns, including the Trumbull’s slumping enrollment, poor performance on standardized tests, expensive update and maintenance costs and access to better surrounding schools factored into Feinerman’s decision.
In response to claims that special educations students are more vulnerable to harm and setbacks during transitions, Feinerman said the most significant determinant is the quality of the receiving school and continuity of support and services. In this regard, Feinerman said CPS is “ doing an exemplary job.”
Morgan scoffed at Feinerman’s opinion of receiving schools Chappell, McCutcheon and McPherson.
“No,” Morgan said. “Not at all.”
Dozens of Trumbull supporters, clad in purple Chargers T-shirts, showed up to view the hearing. Feinerman acknowledged the support, but said lack of proof to how many opposed the closing was “extremely significant.”
Cindy Zucker, who served as Trumbull’s acting assistant principal earlier this year, said quantifying parent and community support would have been an easy task.
“There was a large outpouring of families to a number of meetings,” Zucker said.
Added Zayas: “The harm is in the timing. If this happened a week after the closing was announced, everybody would be here. But the process took so long, the kids go back to school in a couple weeks and now everybody’s already wrapped their heads around going to a new school.”
It’s unclear whether the plaintiffs will appeal the judge’s ruling.
“The harm has already been done,” Zucker said. “We can’t undo that harm.”
Document: Trumbull's complaint filed with the court, with highlights and notes. Click on yellow tabs to the side for notes. Read in full screen.
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