Chicago Public Schools is moving to sell off all of the shuttered schools as soon as possible – including Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St.
Last October, Ald. Chris Taliaferro held a town hall meeting on a proposal put together by a group of healthcare providers to turn the former school building into the Emmet Community Health and Wellness Center. Although the response to the proposal was mixed, the alderman said at the time that, if anyone else had other proposals, he would consider them.
But during a recent community meeting, held Jan. 4 at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson St., Taliaferro revealed that all of that planning related the reuse proposal may be moot. CPS is looking to sell off all of the closed schools that haven’t been sold off already as quickly as possible, regardless of what local aldermen may want. And while Taliaferro said he’s been pushing CPS to give him some control of the process, he wasn’t optimistic.
The Community Health and Wellness Center proposal was put together by Cook County Health and Hospital System, the Sinai Health System and the Oak Park-based PCC Wellness Center. While all three have medical facilities are located in Austin, they are looking to expand their operations and offer services they haven’t been able offered before.
The proposed center would have included a “community classroom,” a senior center, a fitness center, a daycare center and a community garden.
During the Jan. 4 community meeting, Taliaferro said that CPS officials informed him that it was planning to sell off the closed schools, including Emmet, as soon as possible.
“CPS decided that, rather than continue spending on upkeep and maintenance of the properties, they would put 40-something remaining [unused] schools on the market for sale,” he said. “So they’ve essentially taken a lot of discretion from the aldermen.”
Taliaferro said that CPS was looking to launch a nation-wide bidding process this month.
“They’re going to be selling them to the biggest bidder,” he said. “Each of those bids will go to the board [of education] for approval.”
Before the bids go out, the schools will be open for 40 to 45 days, allowing prospective bidders to inspect them, Taliaferro said.
The alderman explained that he was told that CPS was spending about $1 million a year on maintenance and securing the buildings.
“I talked to [CPS’] real estate department, and they said ‘we need money and we’re losing money,'” Taliaferro said.
He said he would push for CPS to give aldermen some say in the process. Attempts to contact CPS officials for comment on this story by deadline were unsuccessful.
“I am going to ask them for some deference on schools in my ward, but I don’t think I’m going to get that,” Taliaferro said.
Resident Curlee Reed wondered if the Austin schools that are still open would get any money from the sales.
“No, it’s going to CPS,” Taliaferro replied. “I imagine those buildings aren’t going to be sold for a whole lot of money. A lot of those buildings have been stripped of anything that’s valuable.”
Husband and wife Dwayne and Cata Truss, both of whom campaigned heavily against the closing of Austin schools in 2013, expressed skepticism about the Emmet reuse proposal.
Cata Truss wondered whether zoning would affect how the buildings would be used. Taliaferro said that it would and that, in keeping with established protocol, he still had the final say over any zoning changes.
Dwayne Truss said that the proposed Emmet development was proof of something he and other opponents of school closings were worried about all along.
“Those schools should have never been closed,” he said. “And now CPS is going on to sell them. They spent more money on schools when we closed them. We got to stop letting them come over with plans and policies that hurt us in the long run.”
“If you are against the proposals, you can reach out to them,” Taliaferro replied, which prompted laughter from some residents in attendance at the Jan. 4 meeting, where the alderman revealed that he put together an advisory committee to look into the existing Emmet reuse proposal. The Trusses said that they hadn’t heard about the committee until that point.
“We came to your offices saying we want to be [involved] and now you’re saying you have an advisory committee?” said Dwayne, adding that, given his and his wife’s history of fighting for Austin schools, it didn’t make any sense that they would be left out of the process.
Taliaferro responded that he would welcome the couple’s involvement in an education advisory committee, but that the Emmet committee was “an economic development issue” and not an “education issue.”
Taliaferro mentioned that the advisory committee included Amara Enyia, executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and a regular Austin Weekly News columnist; Mildred Wiley, who the alderman brought on board in her capacity as chair of the Austin Childcare Providers Network; and representatives of Cook County Health and Hospital System and Mount Sinai Health System; among others.