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Ald. Austin Blasts CPS on Security for School Closings

By Ted Cox | April 24, 2013 4:29pm
 Ald. Carrie Austin attacked plans to close schools on the South Side, citing safety concerns.
Ald. Carrie Austin attacked plans to close schools on the South Side, citing safety concerns.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

DOWNTOWN — A prominent South Side alderman blasted plans to close schools at the Board of Education meeting Wednesday, citing safety concerns for children who will be forced to walk through tough territory.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) questioned the proposed closing of Songhai Elementary in Roseland, with students moving to Curtis Elementary.

"There is absolutely no way that my police commander has told you that's a safe walk," Austin said. "The chaos that's gonna come from you sending them to Curtis will be extremely detrimental."

She also took issue with sending Kohn Elementary students to Cullen, saying, "That's absolutely too far to go from Wentworth all the way to King Drive."

 Asean Johnson charmed members of the Board of Education, only to ask, "Why would you take Marcus Garvey away from us?"
Asean Johnson charmed members of the Board of Education, only to ask, "Why would you take Marcus Garvey away from us?"
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Yet she saved her harshest criticism of the Chicago Public Schools for plans to close Garvey Elementary with students moving to Mount Vernon in Washington Heights.

"That direction is basically wrong as well," Austin said, citing Garvey as the superior facility. "It's only about the money you invested in Mount Vernon."

Several speakers echoed that in the public-comment session of the meeting, most eloquent of them Garvey third-grader Asean Johnson, who charmed the board only to conclude, "Why would you take Marcus Garvey away from us?"

"They are going to have to come back with better options," conceded board member Mahalia Hines on the safety issues cited by Austin.

Otherwise, however, the board remained largely stoic on the issue of school closings, which it is slated to vote on next month, in the face of criticism, including renewed charges of racism against CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Earlier this month, Byrd-Bennett said that was an "affront" to her as a "woman of color."

"Being a woman of color does not excuse the fact of your being a racist," countered Darlene Williams, a Paderewski Elementary parent who pointed to the concentration of school closings on the South and West sides.

Retired CPS teacher Bonita Robinson labeled Byrd-Bennett's complaints "disingenuous and dangerous" to students and called closings "the most insidious kind of racism," adding, "It is time to end this modern-day Tuskegee experiment."

"We are now in the fourth stage of community engagement. We continue to listen," Byrd-Bennett maintained. "We've provided a solid platform for community feedback and have listened to every voice throughout the process."

Yet others insisted the board might have listened, but hadn't actually heard complaints. Courtenay Elementary parent Mila Cohen cited Mayor Rahm Emanuel's position that the time for negotiation is over, adding, "This is insulting, because there was no negotiation."

Trumbull Elementary Local School Council Chairman James Morgan cited again how the "utilization formula" used by CPS to determine closings hadn't taken into account special-education students at the Andersonville school. "The cornerstone of this entire process is flawed," he said.

Jennifer Biggs, of Raise Your Hand, attacked the "misuse of data ... in order to sell this plan."

"It feels as if there are schools that clearly should not be on this list," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

Board members Hines and Andrea Zopp both seemed receptive to that argument. "You gotta explain the numbers so that we can understand it," Zopp said.

"The board will be well-schooled in the utilization formula," said President David Vitale. "We understand what we talk about in utilization," adding, "I don't want the public to think the board is unsophisticated."

Ald. Mary O'Connor (41st), meanwhile, decried overcrowding at Oriole Park and Wildwood schools on the Northwest Side and in Norwood Park, asking if CPS can throw money at so-called welcoming schools taking in those from closed facilities, why can't it fund existing schools that need resources?

The board went on to approve a supplemental capital-improvements budget allotting $155 million to welcoming schools. Some $34 million will be drawn from tax-increment-financing-district accounts, and the rest will be borrowed in bond sales.

Board member Dr. Carlos Azcoitia asked that the board vote individually on each of the 54 school closings when the time comes next month. He also opposed three proposals to expand elementary charter schools while the board is closing public schools. Hines joined him on one of those votes and abstained from the others, but all three were approved.