LINCOLN PARK — On the same day Chicago Public Schools released an analysis detailing more than 300 underutilized schools systemwide, Abraham Lincoln Elementary parents had hoped to hear they were a step closer to a new $30 million building at the site of the former Children’s Memorial Hospital.
But at a meeting of Lincoln’s Local School Council Tuesday night, a CPS official told them “CPS does not have [the] dollars."
“Every option is being pursued," said Adam Anderson, CPS portfolio office chief of strategy and planning. "Dollars from beyond the CPS world are being looked into."
Despite a 10-2 vote from the LSC demanding a new school — and Ald. Michele Smith's (43rd) backing of that plan — the only hope for the school is funding from Springfield or the federal government, parents were told.
Lincoln is one of about 80 schools identified as overcrowded in Tuesday’s report. It is unique, however, in that the school is not surrounded by other crowded schools, but rather is close to three underutilized schools.
Anderson made it clear that CPS is going back to the drawing board under its new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and taking a second look at options, such as changing the boundaries of nearby schools, to ease Lincoln's crowding.
One group of parents backing a new school at the former hospital, We Are Lincoln Elementary (WALE), is now focusing its efforts on persuading legislators to earmark money for the project. The group estimates the cost of the building at $30 million, while an opposing group of parents and residents puts it closer to $50 million.
A number of parents, including members of Lincoln’s LSC, are confident they can find the money, but Anderson said he hopes to have a plan in place to solve the crowding by March 31 that wouldn't involve a new building at the hospital site. If the money comes available in May, he said that plan can be revised.
"I've heard of a lot of different money going to a lot of different things in this district that never materializes," he said.
Smith said finding a solution to the crowding was the top issue for her, and she was pursuing "every option possible" to pay for a new school. She said that she had not heard from the developer of the former hospital site since she rejected a high-rise plan there in August, but she wants a piece of the land to be either donated or sold to CPS.
"We would like a portion of that site to continue to benefit children," she said.
Parents in favor of a new school argue it will not only remedy the crowding at Lincoln, but will stop the flight of wealthy young families — and their tax dollars — to the suburbs.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease," said Jerry Quandt, who is on the LSC and has a child enrolling at Lincoln. "You don't get anything from CPS unless you demand."
A group of parents and community members who are opposed to the plan to build a new school have accused WALE of trying to ram a decision through.
“We are a small blip on their radar of hundreds of schools that they need to close,” said Caroline Vickrey, an LSC member opposed to a new building. “It’s insane. We are such a little spark on the back of the stove."
The development's plans and funds would be reliant on a parcel of land on the 6-acre site near Halsted and Fullerton, which is currently in limbo. The developer, McCaffery Interests Inc., proposed a plan that would have added about 900 apartments, but Smith refused to support rezoning the property because it would aggravate the school overcrowding.
CPS projected the enrollment at Lincoln to rise dramatically this year, but the actual number fell by 25 students, to 784.
While those in favor of a new building argue that enrollment will follow a longtime trend and continue to grow — especially if a housing development is built at the site — those against the plan think the crowding issue could be solved by redrawing school district lines.
Redrawing those lines would likely involve phasing out LaSalle Language Academy’s magnet program and turning it back into a neighborhood school, according to Smith's office. CPS considered that plan last December, but parent groups from both schools shot it down, and CPS dropped the proposal.
That plan would have sent children from homes south of Armitage Avenue, who would now go to Lincoln, to LaSalle.
"Lincoln is the crown jewel of the neighborhood k-through-eight system in Chicago, but it won't be the crown jewel for long if you keep jamming more and more kids into that building," said Eric Gurry, a founder of WALE and parent of two Lincoln students.
Many parents don't want their homes falling outside the boundaries of "the crown jewel."
“I don’t think this is really about the best interest of children, it is about property values and has always been about property values,” said Michelle Villegas, a former Lincoln LSC member.
Villegas said a group of parents who oppose the new building are afraid of voicing their opinion for fear of retaliation against their children.
“There’s almost an aura of McCarthyism at the school,” Villegas said.
In an email sent during the redistricting discussions, Smith scoffed at the LaSalle proposal, stating, “We are the people who have made a bet on our city, who have invested thousands of dollars into our homes and our local schools to make them both thrive.”
Colleen Day, who moved to the city from Cleveland in 2000 and has a daughter at Lincoln, agreed with Smith that a new school was a better plan than redistricting.
“People who moved into this neighborhood didn’t come here for high rises,” she said. “We are asking them to donate a small portion of the land.”