When Chicago Public Schools closed 50 schools last year, one of the many concerns was what would happen to the shuttered buildings. The one criteria Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced was that charter schools would not be allowed to take over the closed CPS buildings.
The closed schools stand silently across Chicago's neighborhoods. The vacant buildings add to the blight in some of the city's toughest areas. Only three of the more than 43 schools closed by CPS last June are now being reused.
CPS Chief Operating Officer Tom Tyrrell admits that finding new uses for the closed buildings is difficult.
“This has been hard every step of the way, from every perspective, and this is the last hard part,” he said. “These buildings represent in many cases critical assets to the community, and that's why there’s so much emphasis on trying to find a repurposed use for the buildings.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel set up a blue ribbon committee to devise a process for deciding how to reuse the closed schools. The committees timeline calls for CPS to have a website with data on all closed schools set up by now. It hasn't happened, but Tyrrell says it will be up within the next two weeks. The timeline also calls for walk-throughs in the closed schools.
“There were supposed to be real estate brokers come to the closed buildings to do a walk-through,” said Cecile Carroll with the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force. “We came here for the Laura Ward visit and there was no one here. We got communications from city officials that it was no longer going to go through. So we're really confused about how that schedule is supposed to move forward.”
The walk-throughs were canceled after CPS decided the request for real estate brokers to submit proposals on how they would sell the vacant buildings was not ready.
“What we discovered after we put the RFP out, it didn't really capture the unique nature of what we were asking the real estate community to do so we basically pulled it back,” Tyrrell said.
There is interest in the closed schools. Carroll is often approached by neighborhood people with ideas on what to do with the closed schools.
“What we're going to do is open an employment workshop and an after school program,” said musician Frederick Heath.
Carroll urges Heath to bring his idea to the next community meeting. She says the community is ready to go.
“We would have hoped that the community meetings and the engagement had already started and that's what we would have been in the midst of right now,” Carroll said.
Students and teachers at the Legacy Charter School in West Lawndale also have an idea for a nearby closed school. As evidenced by this "Legacy is a HAPPY Place" video, students and teachers love their charter school. But, with 500 students, they are bursting at the seams and would like to move into the Pope School that was closed last spring.
“I think it would be wonderful because they need the space. The school is much bigger than what they are right now,” said Legacy parent Towana Taylor. “It’s a lot of transitioning that they have to do inside of this building to accommodate the children. They could do everything in Pope. They would have the space for it.”
Legacy opened 10 years ago as a CPS charter school. Since then, the school has raised $8 million for their building fund which the school could use to buy the Pope building from CPS. The catch is Byrd-Bennett promised during the height of the school closing debate last year that charter schools would not be allowed to take over closed CPS buildings.
Lawndale community activist Valerie Leonard worries that it's a promise Byrd-Bennett will not keep.
“It wouldn't surprise me. She's gone back on a number of promises. She promised that no charters would be here,” said Leonard.
But Leonard says her biggest concern is that the community be involved in the process of deciding how to reuse the closed schools. She says if the community wants Legacy to take over Pope, she would go along.
And, for the first time, CPS says the community’s wishes could override Byrd-Bennett's promise.
“We have said very clearly we're not going to put a charter school in a closed school building, but to me it's a much different thing when the community says, ‘I hear what you said but we want one.’ I think that restarts the conversation,” said Tyrrell. “If it takes the property off the CPS books and it comports with the community preference, I think any proposed use would be considered.”
That's good news for Ald. Michael Chandler. Both Legacy and Pope are in his 24th ward, and he does not want to see Legacy shut out of the bidding process for Pope.
“We want everybody who wants to submit a proposal to be able to,” he said.
The timeline calls for community meetings to discuss the proposals and accept bids by the end of June with contracts signed by the end of the year; an ambitious timeline which so far has gotten off to a slow start.
If new uses for the closed school buildings have not been found at the end of three years, the timeline from the mayor's committee calls for the buildings to be demolished.