FULLER PARK — Before a forum on planned school closings got started, a veteran teacher’s assistant summed up the sentiments of the hundreds who'd crammed into a Southwest Side auditorium Wednesday for the latest in a series of meetings on the issue.
“If we close down, where do our children go?” asked Robert Fulton Elementary School's Veda Cooper-King, while trying to reserve seats for her Englewood school colleagues at the CPS community forum for the Pershing Network.
“That's our concern.”
The forum, held at the Fuller Park field house, is part of an ongoing series of community feedback sessions offered by CPS as the district prepares to shutter upward of 100 school to help close a budget deficit projected at $400 million. The CPS faces a state-imposed deadline at the end of March to announce the closings for the fall and is largely pointing to "utilization" of buildings as the main criteria for closing schools.
Across the Pershing Network’s 31 elementary schools — which cover the Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Chinatown, Bronzeville, Back of the Yards and Englewood neighborhoods — 10 are considered underutilized, four are overcrowded and 17 are labeled efficient, according to CPS.
Network chief Victor Simon said it was a “great sign” that so many parents, students, teachers and local school council members turned out for Wednesday's forum.
“It shows a lot of promise from the community,” he said.
Simon was flanked by deputy network chief Julio Cesar Contreras and Adam Anderson from the CPS office of Planning and Strategy. The trio stood in front of the crowd and jotted notes as each speaker made impassioned pleas to stave off the closures.
And there were many.
The night kicked off with remarks from Phillip D. Armour Elementary School teacher Rafael Rinconeno, who said CPS overstated the number of classrooms in the Bridgeport school’s buildings, altering its utilization ranking.
What followed was a fiery speech from the Rev. Tom Gaulke, an organizer with the Bridgeport Alliance and SOUL activist groups, who admonished the school district for funding the forums with what Catalyst Chicago reported was grant money issued by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation.
“We’re not here to beg from you. Rather, we’re here to tell you that you won’t close down any of our schools without a fight,” he said, prompting chants and cheering from the standing-room-only crowd.
Eric Dockery, principal of Dewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts in Back of the Yards, disputed the CPS designation of its classrooms as underutilized. He said the school has converted classrooms into a digital media center and computer labs.
“Every room that we have is fully utilized. We use every room for the benefit and education of our children. Every room is not a classroom,” he said.
Eric Werge helps oversee Arthur A. Libby Elementary School's YMCA community schools initiative, which he said offers crucial after-school programs like drum line, dance and drama classes.
If the school is closed — it is also labeled as underutilized — he said its partnership with the YMCA will crumble.
“Kids have a right to these programs,” he said. “We want it to continue. It deserves to continue.”
About halfway through the meeting, school groups were given the option to attend breakout sessions, where CPS officials told the smaller groups their feedback would be sent to district officials, including new Supt. Barbara Byrd Bennett.
That didn’t seem to satisfy some in the crowd, who later said they were hoping to address CPS brass in person.
The full breakout sessions were off-limits to reporters, who were only allowed to observe the proceedings for a limited time.
Outside the auditorium, where parents headed for the breakout sessions or the exits and toward the buses on which they arrived en masse, many said they were happy to have had their say.
But they were skeptical about the forums making a real impact on the future of Chicago's neighborhood schools.
"We didn't get many answers," said Fulton Elementary teacher Arturo Quiroz. "Maybe the next meeting will be more revealing."
A second CPS forum for the Pershing Network is scheduled for Feb. 21 from 7 to 9 p.m., also at Fuller Park.