Board replaces schools in neighborhoods with clout

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Two communities with clout have moved to the front of the class for new schools in Chicago, raising questions of political favoritism by Mayor Daley’s School Reform Board.

In the 19th Ward on the Far Southwest Side, home to two elected county officials, Keller Gifted Magnet School is slated for a new building so that it can add a 7th and an 8th grade, a total of 60 addtional students.

In the “new” Cabrini-Green, a frontier of gentrification in Chicago, three schools are scheduled for demolition and replacement: the Ferguson Child Parent Center, Byrd Community Academy and Near North Career Metro High School.

In a 1995 report, the McClier Corporation identified 36 Chicago schools as being in such bad shape that replacing them would be more economical than fixing them up; neither Keller nor the Cabrini schools are among them. Indeed, Ferguson is one of only 31 schools classified by McClier as being in good condition. Larry Justice, the board’s capital planning chief, says the board is considering replacing several of the 36 but acknowledges that only the Keller and Cabrini projects have the board’s commitment. The board also has no current commitments to relieve overcrowding in high schools. Paul Vallas says he is “very concerned” about jam-packed schools like Juarez High in Pilsen but that school officials are still weighing the options.

To be sure, the Reform Board is building new schools to help relieve overcrowding in elementary schools and is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into sorely needed repairs citywide. But even board officials concede that the school system’s capital needs far outstretch its capacity to pay for them.

“If there are children in buildings that are not in compliance with the most basic codes, then we have to question why Pershing Road is moving so swiftly on these priorities,” says Jackie Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which monitors the city’s capital spending.

Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas says that the Keller and Cabrini projects simply make good educational and fiscal sense. As for politics, he points to rehab work done on the turf of arch Daley-administration critics. “Was that political?” he fumes. “All the modifications we have made—saying, ‘This school needs an addition, that school needs an annex.’ I guess it must be political.”

Plans to build a new building for Keller—construction is scheduled to begin early next year—represent an apparent change of heart for Vallas.

In June, he told parents and residents that a new building was “not on the radar screen,” according to an article in the Beverly Review. “Given the demands elsewhere, it’s just not feasible at this time. Some new schools are being built because of the severe overcrowding at some schools. … Others are being built because some schools are ready to collapse.”

Vallas said then that he supported the idea of adding a 7th and 8th grade to Keller, which currently enrolls just 170 kids in grades 1-6. Any new construction, though, would be minimal. “A six-room addition is the top that we could do here,” he said.

In later meetings, board staff gradually enhanced the addition plans in response to concerns by the school’s immediate neighbors. Keller’s playground is the only park for several blocks, and neighbors were reluctant to part with precious green space without getting something in return. Thus, a new gym was penciled in. However, putting an addition on one side of the school and a gym on the other would require still more work on the original building, which pushed costs still higher.

Architects and engineers finally decided they’d be better off junking the current building and starting over.

Cost estimates on the replacement vary. Vallas reckons $3.5 million. Capital planner Justice says $5 million to $5.5 million. Both say that the old plan—additions plus an upgrade for the original building—would run around $2.5 million. The extra money will be well spent, says Vallas: “We don’t want to have to come back and do more later.”

That argument doesn’t wash with some Keller parents and neighbors. “I’m flabbergasted. All that money for so few children is amazing,” says local resident Cheryl Christ, whose son attends Morgan Park High School, where she works. “If we’ve got capital money to spend, I’m sure there are some schools that could use some basic repairs.”

Keller parent Steven Carrig says that if the Keller plan means that needier schools will have to wait, “Then I would say, Screw the addition.”

Schools like Keller shouldn’t be left out of the board’s plans, he says, but they needn’t be first in line. After all, he notes, Keller parents likely can find decent alternatives. “We’re people who are capable of finding good schools for our children,” he says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be there [at Keller].”

The Mt. Greenwood community is getting more than a new school. “I think this is a win-win,” Ald. Virginia Rugai told parents and residents at an Oct. 9 meeting. “I think we get as much as, if not more than, we give.”

Rugai said that local groups could use the building after hours, that the Park District might staff some programs and that some spots at the magnet school could be reserved for local kids.

The deal is reminiscent of the one that Rugai won on behalf of neighbors of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, another magnet school in Mt. Greenwood. In the Ag School case, the alderman also had a cap put on enrollment. “I had to go through the Legislature with the Ag School, because the Board of Ed then would not even deal with the community,” she said. “Now, I can get this for you directly.”

Cabrini controversy

The proposed new schools in Cabrini-Green are part of the city’s controversial plan to dismantle the high-rise ghetto and replace it with a mixed-income development. Near North High is to give way to new housing; Ferguson Child Parent Center, to a shopping center parking lot. Plans don’t specify what’s to replace Byrd Community Academy.

Near North, now across the street from pricey condominiums on the renewal area’s northern end, is to be rebuilt alongside the Chicago River, at the area’s western edge. Ferguson is to be rebuilt on the grounds of Manierre Elementary. And Byrd is to be rebuilt near its current site, abutting a park that is being shoved aside by the same shopping center that will bump Ferguson.

Vallas says the plan will more or less pay for itself. By selling the land under the current sites, he hopes to pay for the construction of the new buildings. Money for land under the new buildings, he says, could come from the proposed Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, which would keep local property tax revenues in the neighborhood. The board has already committed $1 million for architect’s fees.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) says he’s “ecstatic” about the school plans. Burnett grew up in Cabrini and went to Byrd. “There’s a need for a new school at Byrd,” he says. A new Near North sounds good to him too. “It’s not an old school, but they did a poor job. It’s in bad shape.”

“This is an opportunity to remove that building and to build one that will serve the future,” says financial expert Warren Matha, the board’s liaison to the city planners who are mapping out the neighborhood’s future.

But Chicago Housing Authority tenants and activist groups charge that the city’s version of that future doesn’t include current residents. “The bottom line is that they’re preparing for the newcomers, which does not include low- and moderate-income people,” says Joann Barron, a longtime local resident who’s active in community development work. “All of the development stuff that’s going on in this community is for the newcomers, not for us. People need to wake up and raise hell.”

Some are starting to. In late October, the Cabrini Green Local Advisory Council blasted the city’s redevelopment plan. The Council was joined by the CHA Central Advisory Council, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.

The tenant groups and their allies charge that the plan threatens to push Cabrini residents out of the neighborhood altogether—breaking earlier CHA promises. A plan written under former CHA Chair Vince Lane guaranteed places for Cabrini residents in the new development; the current plan, released in June by the City Planning Department, guarantees fewer places.

Indeed, the CHA already is reneging on earlier promises, notes Ed Kraus, policy director for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Tenants moved out of a Cabrini-Green building on North Cleveland after the CHA promised to rehab it, not demolish it. Last month, the CHA asked federal authorities for permission to demolish the building after all. “That’s the kind of dirty pool they’re playing here,” says Kraus.

Ald. Burnett is more trusting. “People are afraid of change, but this is an opportunity for the residents and the kids to benefit,” he says. “You can’t be a part of it just by fighting it all the time; you become a part of it by getting in on the ground floor.”

But hell raisers aren’t they only ones who are worried. Even the establishment-oriented Metropolitan Planning Council has sounded a warning that, most likely, “families will be shut out of redevelopment in their community due to an insufficient number of replacement units.”

Leavy of the capital-budget watchdog group warns that while the proposed financing for the new Cabrini schools may sound good, it’s impossible to tell for sure until everything has been put in writing. “It’s possible that it’s a good deal, but it’s at least as likely that the taxpayers could lose their shirts on this,” says Leavy. “The devil is in the details.”

Indeed, Matha, the board’s finance expert, is cautious in describing the financing for the new Cabrini schools. Land sales, he says “will pay an important part of the tab [for new buildings], but we won’t really know until the property is liquidated.” And he acknowledges that the school district has competitors for TIF funds. “There are a lot of infrastructure needs in that area,” he says. “The schools are just one of them.”