LINCOLN PARK — Tempers flared at a meeting to discuss Lincoln Elementary's newly announced annex Wednesday night, culminating with two men throwing punches and the principal escorting one of the men out.
Chicago Public Schools officials, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Lincoln Principal Mark Armendariz attempted to explain the upcoming addition to the school to alleviate overcrowding, but were consistently interrupted by a group of about 30 people in the crowd.
The opponents were mainly neighbors who claimed the plan, which was announced last week on Veterans Day, came as a surprise with little to no input from community members who did not have children in the school.
Three squad cars showed up at the school after the altercation, but no arrests were made.
"Why should we have a plan that we never even saw, never even saw in the works, never were given options, all the sudden show up in a Veterans Day email?" said Joy Wingren, who lives across from Lincoln, but does not have students enrolled.
Others opposed to the annex fear it will bring more congestion to the area and will take away the public's access to the school's playlot.
Ald. Smith said Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS's plan to build a three-story addition onto Lincoln came as a surprise to her as well, as she was pushing for a new school to be built on the site of the upcoming Children's Memorial Hospital development.
"We pressed and pressed and pressed," Smith said. "Quite frankly, very shortly before that announcement I was brought into a meeting with CPS and our mayor and they said you know what, we want to build an annex to Lincoln Elementary and the way that we can afford to do it is to have it on the current site."
Smith said she fully supported the proposal and "was happy to embrace it."
"CPS showed me this and said this is what we are doing," she added.
Lincoln's principal and other supporters said the plan, which is expected to cost roughly $20 million, is a fair compromise that will expand the overcrowded school and make room for future students expected when the Children's Memorial site becomes a residential area.
"We have special ed classrooms in coat rooms, we have small classrooms in coat rooms and at the top of stairwells," Armendariz said. "I just wanted something respectable for our teachers and our students."
The annex will be paid for by state monies.
Armendariz called for a respectful meeting and said he expected opposition, but in the end he escorted a man out of the auditorium.
Armendariz scolded the man who was part of the fight, yelling, "Out! I'm the principal of this school. Our children don't even act like that."
The principal said he began asking for space at Lincoln Elementary five years ago because he saw a growing trend of new students and said he was "elated" by the news of the annex.
Lincoln parents who are in favor of the plan and had been pushing for a solution to overcrowding stood and clapped along with Armendariz and CPS officials at the end of the meeting.
"I know that there is a lot of controversy, but I am not going to stop ... saying we are excited to be here," said Pat Taylor, chief facilities officer for CPS.
The surprise announcement of the annex, which will add 19 classrooms to the school and make space for 420 additional students, has been questioned by parents from some of the city's 77 schools that are considered to be overcrowded by CPS standards.
Lincoln has 813 students enrolled for the 2013-2014 school year, but its ideal capacity is listed at 660 students. Its utilization rate is 129 percent, according to CPS.
A parent from Canty Elementary School in Belmont Cragin grilled Smith and CPS's chief public and community affairs officer Michael Rendina after the meeting asking why his school has been skipped over for 15 years.
"We have been looking really hard at Canty," Rendina said.
Some neighbors of Lincoln who are opposed to the annex cited the loss of playground space as a major concern, as the annex is set to be built on the asphalt play lot. An outdoor play area is being built on the roof of the annex for recess.
"For us, we certainly understand the anger about losing the park, but our priority is what happens inside the building," Rendina said.
A CPS official laid out a timeline for the proposed annex with the Public Building Commission expected to approve the project in December, design and procurement to occur from December through May 2014 and construction to begin July 2014 and run through July 2015.
The existing building would be renovated over the summer from June through August 2015 and the building would open Aug. 24, 2015.