After the Chicago School Board meeting Wednesday, many of the aldermen who argued unsuccessfully to keep schools in their wards open said they were disappointed with the process.
Ald. Deborah Graham, 29th, said she went to testify at the school board meeting because she wanted to make sure officials understood how upset she and her constituents were about the closings. "It needed to be on the record that we have objections," Graham said. "This will go down in history. If this doesn't work, they need to know people were screaming at the top of their lungs."
Graham said school officials could have gotten residents on board with the closing plan if they had taken a more collaborative approach. "Folks know in their hearts that changes need to be made (to the schools)," she said. "But we could have walked hand in hand toward the finish line, even if we weren't all singing 'Kumbaya.'"
Graham said she was particularly troubled that parents and administrators were forced to fight against one another in trying to make the case to hearing officers that their school should stay open rather than another school. "It was kind of harsh and brutal," she said. "I don't want to join into the fight of tearing flesh from another person."
Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, continued to insist that the hours of public hearings CPS officials held were all for show and not a sincere effort to collect community input.
“If they had already decided what they were going to do in the first place, why engage an angered community when it wasn’t going to make a difference?” said Fioretti, who will have four schools in his ward close. “It was all a charade. That’s all you can say about it."
Fioretti said he wasn’t surprised Emanuel’s hand-picked school board prevented a handful of schools from closing, saying it was reflective of how the mayor operates on many issues – making small concessions while still managing to achieve his overall goal.
“They want to make you feel good by saying, ’Look at what we did, look at what we kept open,’” he said. “The truth is the same standards they used to keep those schools open could have been applied to all of the schools they closed.”
“This was a pivotal moment in the future of this city. This vote will have a financial and psychological impact that will be devastating to our communities,” Fioretti said.
Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, said he was able to make an impression on Emanuel about the importance of keeping Manierre Elementary School open rather than folding it into Jenner Elementary School when he stopped talking to the mayor about a decades-long gang rivalry between families at the two schools. Burnett said he instead took every opportunity to impress upon the mayor that having both schools succeed would be a boon to efforts to attract more middleclass families to the neighborhood that once included Cabrini-Green.
"(Emanuel) called me early on, which is something (former Mayor Richard) Daley never would have done, and I started talking to him about the potential for violence," Burnett recalled. "He literally told me, 'I'm not going to make this decision based on a family feud.' So at that point, I realized I had to try a different argument."
"So after that, I tried not to focus on the crime thing. I tried to focus on redevelopment."
Burnett said he could tell he was making progress with Emanuel by making the case that Manierre is an engine for development on the Near West Side. "I ran into him in the hallway at City Hall (Tuesday)," Burnett said. "He was getting on the elevator, he said 'Come here,' and said 'Talk to me about why this is important.'"
"Emanuel comes out hard, he comes out strong, he digs his feet in the sand and says 'No,' but you can work on him if you really press your case. You can disagree with him, and he will listen to you. He's a different kind of mayor."
But Burnett didn't have luck convincing CPS to pull other schools off the closing list.
Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, was happy that Garvey elementary school was spared after a lobbying effort.
“I could jump up and down and shout. Naturally, I’m pleased about Garvey,” Austin said. “That’s one of our premier schools and I’m glad the board saw the diamond in the rough.”
School officials originally misread Garvey’s performance because a district-imposed open enrollment policy brought an influx of students who struggled to meet the schools standards, she said. Garvey’s placement on the closing list led to an outcry from the school community and Austin’s own lobbying of Emanuel.
“I think the mayor listened. And Ms. Byrd listened. And they heard the cries of the parents and the students,” she said.
Austin lamented that while Garvey was spared, three other schools in her ward were not. She was most concerned about Songhai Elementary being absorbed into Curtis Elementary. The two schools have a long history of feuding and violence.
“They are going to feud. The children are already the Hatfields and the McCoys. They are not going to stop,” Austin said, adding she will keep fighting to stop the combining of the two schools. “They have to see it out of the eyes of safety, and not education.”
Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, said one school in his ward, Courtenay, will have its teachers and students relocated next year to Stockton in the adjacent 46th Ward.
“How can we expect neighborhoods to thrive when we remove neighborhood schools?” Pawar asked after the vote. “Closing a school is akin to closing a community.”
Pawar said what was most frustrating to him about the entire process was a failure to acknowledge the decades of decisions driven by “institutional racism” that left predominantly minority neighborhoods cut off from essential city services and led to sharp declines in population that ultimately necessitated the school closings in those areas.
“There was no talk of how we got here, how these neighborhoods became so isolated with such deep pockets of poverty,” Pawar said. “What they did with this vote is hold buildings and teachers accountable for social problems in our city.”
Pawar also said the decision to close the 49 schools was the direct result of a national movement that he said has made “education reform synonymous with charter schools.”
“This is not just Mayor Emanuel. This is Arne Duncan. This is our president,” he said. “They have set up this national system encouraging charter schools to proliferate at the expense of our neighborhood schools. This isn’t just a Chicago-centric problem. This is a national problem.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel held no public events Wednesday but released a statement after the board vote.
“I want to thank CEO Byrd-Bennett, the board, the commission and the tens of thousands of community members who have played an invaluable role in helping to ensure every child in this city has access to an education that matches their full potential,” Emanuel said in the statement. “I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future. More hard work lies ahead, but I am confident that together with teachers and principals, engaged parents and community support, our children will succeed.”
When asked for details on when and how Byrd-Bennett informed Emanuel of her decision to spare four schools on the closing list, Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said they “speak on a regular basis and spoke as recently as (Wednesday) morning.”
“The mayor has supported the process Barbara launched last year to engage thousands of people across the city on this critical issue, and the recommendations Barbara has made, including the removal of schools from the list. Barbara has kept the mayor updated and discussed her recommendations with the mayor throughout this process, just as she does on other issues critical to CPS students’ education,” Hamilton said.
Asked about Burnett’s account of his lobbying the mayor, Hamilton said: “Ald. Burnett made a spirited effort on behalf of all of the schools in his community. However, any recommendations to remove schools from the consolidation list were made by Barbara Byrd-Bennett based upon the rationale set forth in her report to the board.”Copyright © 2015, CT Now