Chicago Elections: Improving schools and repurposing vacant buildings

Austin residents want more funding to keep neighborhood schools open and to repurpose empty buildings for youth programs

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By Michael Romain

Editor

Mikey Fresco knows in his gut the feeling of a school shutting down. In 2012, his mother's employer, San Miguel Chicago, a network of private schools, announced that it would close its Gary Comer campus at 819 N. Leamington Ave., because there were no funds to support the campus.

"When that school closed, the whole area changed," Fresco recalled in a recent interview. "It was like everything around the neighborhood died. [That school] was like a piece of our neighborhood and a safe haven." 

Fresco was among the Austin residents interviewed by City Bureau who lamented the loss of neighborhood schools and called for the city to do more to fund them. Those residents also said they want more transparency in how closed schools are redeveloped. 

Although Gary Comer was private, Fresco's testimony is no different from Austin residents who lived through what WBEZ calls a "generation of school shakeups and school openings" in Chicago Public Schools. 

Since 2002, WBEZ reported last year, Chicago opened "in the same time period almost the same number of schools it has closed — 193." During that time period, nearly 71,000 students in the city "experienced either a school closing or a total re-staffing of their school firsthand." Eighty-eight percent of those students were black. 

The idea was to shutter schools the city deemed "broken" and unfixable while opening new schools — namely charters, contract schools and performance-based schools — that the city hoped would yield better results. 

With the proliferation of charter schools came what CPS calls its "student-based budgeting" model, in which the budgets of schools are tied to enrollment — meaning funding follows the child. 

Supporters of the model, such as current CPS CEO Janice Jackson, believe that it's the "most equitable approach" to school funding, according to a 2018 Chicago Sun-Times report. 

But many Austin residents City Bureau interviewed said that the model works to undermine the financial viability of public neighborhood schools, contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

With a lack of funding to support vital programming and resources, students' academic performance suffers, which leads the city to deem the schools failures and call for them to close. Meanwhile, students are traumatized in the shuffle. 

"A school closing is never good for me," said Austin resident Lavieda "Kinei" Warner. "Working with children, what you find is that kids never get to be anchored in one place, where they are getting a well-rounded education. All of that bouncing around, having to travel so far from home." 

Catherine Jones, a 57-year-old education advocate who is also a member of the Local School Council for Douglass Academy High School in Austin, said that the school closings are "disrespectful" to the community.

"I don't like it when you close a school and don't work with the LSC to try to get the school more resources," she said. "We need more resources for students. We need restorative justice. We need more centers for families and for students. I believe that charter schools take away from regular schools." 

To add insult to injury, said Deborah Williams, 51, the city and CPS are not very open about the process of reopening the school buildings they close. Last year, the Chicago Reporter wrote about two closed Austin CPS schools that were sold to private school operators with little or no community feedback.

"The process is not done fairly and transparently. They should have more community input around how those properties can be used and repurposed," said Williams, a nonprofit professional.

Austin artist Alexandria Eregbu, 27, said that she would like to lend her voice to the redevelopment process.

"I am interested in adding to this conversation the consideration for new, community-organized plans to positively utilize those vacant spaces," she said. 

Karl Brinson, an Austin resident who is also the president of the Westside Branch NAACP, said that closed schools should not be redeveloped without strong community benefits agreements in place. 

"Those agreements would guarantee a certain amount of jobs, contracts and employment," said Brinson, 62. "And they need to be made binding through a City Council ordinance or something similar. They need some teeth." 

 

Candidate Responses 

Mayoral Candidates

Toni Preckwinkle: Create elected school board. Explore alternatives to student-based budgeting model. "We have to figure out a formula that helps address the challenge of underresourced schools." Enforce a moratorium on school closings and identify a "long-term funding resource" to invest in "chronically underfunded" schools.

Susana Mendoza: Create hybrid school board, partially elected and partially appointed. Cut racial achievement gap in CPS by half in eight years.  Implement plan "doubling down on the neediest schools by expanding wrap-around services, increasing the number of social workers and investing in school-based support." Offer subsidized rent to local nonprofits in underutilized school buildings. 

Willie Wilson*: Create an elected school board. No new charter schools. Consider reopening some closed CPS schools as "trade or vocational schools."

La Shawn K. Ford: Create an elected school board. High-quality education starts with early childhood programs. Support traditional public high school that kids can aspire to attend. Create and fund high-quality early childhood education programs.

Amara Enyia*: Create elected school board. No new charter schools. Give more power to Local School Councils to make school-level decisions. Create an Office of Equity to handle major decisions within CPS.

Gery Chico: Create hybrid school board, partially appointed by the mayor and partially elected. Believes in charter schools, but would first order a full review. Believes that more schools may need to be closed. Wants closed schools to be repurposed into community centers, retail centers and other developments. 

Bill Daley: Create hybrid school board, partially appointed by the mayor and partially elected. May open more charter schools. Change LSCs to be Neighborhood School Councils that have a voice in the reuse of closed school buildings.

Paul Vallas: Create hybrid school board, partially appointed by the mayor and partially elected. Keep schools open until 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Create more spaces like school-based health centers for students. 

 

Aldermanic candidate responses 

28th Ward Candidates 

Jason Ervin: Support STEM programming and renovate schools. 

Jasmine Jackson: "We have to look at it from the perspective of what is available now. What's available now is TIF funds. Although that is something that we are not completely concrete on as being a revenue source." Advocates for strong Local School Councils.

Miguel Bautista: Evaluate school facilities and present to CPS to make sure the ward can get more funding from CPS' budget. Make schools more attractive for students by investing in music, art and trades. Look at local, state and federal levels for funding.

Justina Winfrey: More government internship programs for college students and youths. Fellowships should be able to be exchanged for credit hours and work study.  

Beverly Miles: Supports community performing arts academy. 

29th Ward Candidates 

Chris Taliaferro: "We have to focus on growing Douglass High and creating the desire for the community to want to send their kids to neighborhood schools." Against student-based budgeting. 

Zerlina Smith: Will personally attend Local School Council meetings to know what's going on. Alderpersons need to be directly involved in the community and get "boots on the ground." 

Dwayne Truss: Focus on expanding vocational training, so there are options for students who don't choose college. Parents need to be educated about the rights of special education students. Prioritize placing nurses and counselors in schools. Schools need to have a variety of programming. 

 

37th Ward Candidates 

Emma Mitts*: Supports charter schools, but says that each proposed charter should be examined on an individual basis. Supports appointed school board, but is "open to discussing what a hybrid approach would look like." Previously said an elected board would "inevitably lead to campaigns, which are bound to get divisively negative."  

Deondre Rutues: "I'm still learning about charters," but supports any school that has strong STEM and vocational programming. Favors an elected school board. 

Tara Stamps: "I disagree vehemently with the privatization of public schools in any form, whether [contract schools], charters or otherwise." Supports an elected school board. Student-based budgeting model is "regressive" and consistent with the "commodification of black and brown bodies." 

 

* Indicates candidate did not respond to multiple requests for interview and responses are pulled from public comments.

 

This report was produced in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab. www.citybureau.org

Contact:
Email: michael@austinweeklynews.com Twitter: AustinWeeklyChi

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