The Unruly Business of Shutting Schools

Published on April 29, 2014

The controversial decision to close 50 schools and programs in Chicago last year already is yielding positive results for the city’s schoolchildren, Todd Babbitz, ’04, executive director of the Office of Strategy Management at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), told a Booth gathering.

“The year’s not over so I’m very cautious, but so far the outcomes look positive,” he said.

On April 21, Babbitz spoke about the decision making and logistics of the closings as part of the Social Enterprise Initiative’s Social Impact Leadership Series. SEI hosts six speakers each year in the series to introduce the Booth community to issues and trends in the sector, which is part of the initiative’s overall mission to support the aspirations of Booth students and alumni to help solve social problems.

“Given the enormous interest in our community in improving public school education, we’re especially pleased Todd could join us to share his experience and insights,” said Robert H. Gertner, Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance, deputy dean for the Part-Time MBA Programs, and SEI faculty co-director.

Babbitz joined Chicago Public Schools as chief transformation officer in August 2012. In that role, he led the charge to implement the school closings, facing intense public scrutiny from the media and community members. Prior to that, he was chief marketing officer for benefits outsourcing at Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Hewitt Associates and before that, a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.

He said the ability to affect the lives of so many—largely underprivileged—children, motivated his move from the private sector to Chicago Public Schools.

“The thing that I found most compelling about coming to CPS was the opportunity to help 400,000 children,” he said in an interview.

At Booth, Babbitz was a Robert S. Hamada Distinguished Fellow, the recipient of a fellowship awarded each year to four or five incoming students that includes a full two-year scholarship and stipend. The fellows participate in an ongoing practicum on leadership led by Harry Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management.

Babbitz, who also has a law degree from the University of Michigan, said his time at Booth gave him a better understanding of business issues, the ability to work effectively with a team, and a valuable network of mentors and peers. The discipline of structured problem solving comes into play in his current job, he said.

Chicago Public Schools is so large, with a budget of about $5 billion, it would be a Fortune 500 company if it were a private corporation, Babbitz told the group.

But there’s been a marked decline in the number of children living in the city of Chicago. Between 2000 and 2010, there was a 17 percent decrease in the number of youth under age 19. An estimated 330 schools were underutilized, Babbitz said.

At the same time, district officials project a $1 billion budget deficit, thanks in part to a reduction in federal stimulus money and the end of a holiday on pension payments, he said.

“We have this fiscal challenge,” Babbitz said. “Look around. We don’t have as much money as we want to have in order to make the improvements we want to make. Many of our schools don’t have nearly the enrollment they used to.”

He added: “We were frankly spreading resources much more thinly than we really needed.”

Babbitz said the district held more than 200 community meetings attended by 34,000 participants. In response to feedback, an initial recommendation to close 54 school programs was pared back to 50, with two of the closures delayed.

“We were told these meetings were a sham,” he said. “People didn’t think we were listening. We were.”

Air conditioning units were put in every classroom of the designated welcoming schools, about 1,600 more data ports were added to schools, and traveling to school was made less dangerous for students through safe passage routes, he said. Vacant buildings were boarded up and demolished, abandoned vehicles and graffiti were removed, trees trimmed, grass mowed, and street lighting added.

“This kind of activity is essentially unprecedented in these neighborhoods,” he said. “Certainly, it has never before been associated with school closings. I’m not familiar with any other city in the country that has gone through closing work and had this level of activity going on in impacted communities.”

Early results show better attendance rates for students, higher grade point averages, and no major incidents on safe passage routes, he said.—Deborah Ziff