Chicago: Plans for new arena slammed in wake of 50 school closings

theGRIO REPORT - When Chicago Public School officials voted to close 50 schools last week that it said were underutilized and under-performing, it sent a huge blow to parents of displaced students...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

CHICAGO—When Chicago Public School officials voted to close 50 schools last week that it said were underutilized and under-performing, it sent a huge blow to parents of displaced students. For months, the anticipation of closure sparked a barrage of rallies and demonstrations across the city.

But as CPS aired a consistent message that the mass shutter will help close the gap on a $1 billion budget deficit, affected parents were even more upset to learn about a multi-million dollar arena for downtown Chicago—that they would be contributing to financially.

The $173.5 million plan to build an activity center, housing a 10,000-seat arena that will be primarily used by DePaul University’s women’s and men’s basketball teams, will include $33.5 million of taxpayer resources. But the money had already been earmarked for economic development, according to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.

“The $33.5 million in taxpayer resources comes from TIF (tax increment financing) funds, which were allocated for economic development purposes in that area,” Tom Alexander, a spokesman for Emanuel’s office told theGrio.

Boosting Chicago tourism — but at who’s expense?

The arena is part of a larger project transforming a portion of the lakefront, including two new hotels, several restaurants, an activity center and giving Navy Pier a facelift just in time for its 100th birthday. Emanuel and supporters are aiming to boost the city’s tourism industry, and hope to make it the world’s leading convention and trade show destination.

“That’s ridiculous, because if they’re going to do all that, then they should just put the money toward the schools,” said Cheryl Leshore, who’s considering sending her two kids to a private school when Alfred David Kohn Elementary School closes soon. She hasn’t figured out exactly what she’ll do come autumn yet, but Leshore and other parents wonder if the tax funds used for the development could have been redirected to CPS to avoid a mass closing—the largest of public schools in the country.

In short, Dick Simpson, a former Chicago City Council member and current head of the University of Illinois-Chicago Political Science department said that’s possible. “If the mayor wants to do this project, he will be able to shift the TIF money to do it,” Simpson said. But “whether it’s a good idea is a different issue.”

Simpson explained that although TIF money is typically reserved for economic redevelopment, a small percentage—somewhere around one or two percent—has been used for schools in the past.

The task would be assessing the true value of redirecting the funds and convincing Emanuel and CPS officials to carry the suggestion out.

Parents question timing and tactics

Some parents of kids who are attending schools that will close think it’s a good idea, but say that the timing of Emanuel’s announcement was tactless, according to Billy Flowers, who has six children in the CPS system, two of which will graduate from 8th grade soon. “I think he picked a terrible time to do that.”

Flowers said he’s most concerned with his kids’ safety. “The way things are happening around these schools, I plan to drive my kids. It’s not safe, not even in your homes, anywhere,” he said.

Charnet Weaver, a parent of three students attending Kohn Elementary said the closure is particularly taxing on her kids. “My kids don’t like it. They ask ‘why do we have to go to another school?’ and ‘We know everyone here.’”

“It’s like meeting new friends all over again,” Weaver said. She plans on sending her two children to the accepting school down the street, but sings the mantra of all other concerned parents: the safety is her main issue living in a neighborhood with gang activity.

“I’ll have to figure out my morning commute all over again and make sure my schedule is set so I can get them to school, because it’s so much going on and I’ve got boys, so definitely don’t want them to walk. I don’t want them to get caught up in the street activity,” she said. “I know my route, but I don’t know this new route.”

Asked how she feels about the new downtown Chicago development involving a portion of her tax dollars, Weaver exclaimed, “Why would you spend money on that and you could spend it on these kids and their education? Come on!”

A ‘nightmare’ transition for children, parents

Like Flowers and Weaver, Zaveran Washington, who has three kids at a Dodge Elementary School, that’s slated for closure, is concerned with the safety. But he said the transition to his kids’ new “accepting school” has been a nightmare.

Washington said enduring the Chicago Teachers Union vote for a new contract last year, waiting for an appeal of current school closings and trying to match his kids’ old curriculum with the new one has kept his family in limbo. Additionally, Washington said, “You still have to wonder if they’re going to have funding for the students, to bus them to school, since many of them will have to go over a mile away to get to school.”

In light of school closings and parents’ disappointment with the timing of Emanuel’s decision to start a new development, he still remains confident that it’s a great use of the city resources. He said establishing the entertainment district and redeveloping Navy Pier “is a vital step in tapping the full potential of the City of Chicago,” in a statement last week.

The mayor’s office says the entire $1.1 billion project will create 10,000 construction jobs, 3,700 permanent jobs and “hundreds of millions of dollars of economic growth annually.”

As Leroy Johnson took his kids to school Wednesday morning, he heard of the planned development for the first time. “I feel like that’s pretty poor,” he said, “but it’s nothing we can do about it.”

Renita D. Young is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung