LINCOLN PARK — A ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of Lincoln Elemenary School's new multi-million-dollar annex — a controversial solution to its overcrowding problem — erupted in chaos when Dyett hunger strikers and supporters, who crashed the event, started shouting at public officials, resulting in several more shouting matches and tears.
At the hastily called ceremony Thursday afternoon, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) — surrounded by a large crowd of kids and parents — said the three-story, 19-classroom annex at the school at 615 W. Kemper Pl. will help families now and in the future "to stand firm in their neighborhood."
Smith thanked the school's Local School Council and Mayor Rahm Emanuel for their "tireless" efforts in making the $19-million annex a reality, which has been years in the making. The addition will increase the school's capacity by 420 students.
The project was paid for through state funds raised from online gambling on horse races, according to Lincoln parents who were briefed on the project.
Mina Bloom describes how the protesters interrupted the ceremony:
Behind Smith was Emanuel, Lincoln Elementary principal Mark Armendariz and Forrest Claypool, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools.
"I can see from this room that people are invested," Claypool told the crowd, adding that the annex will "allow its academic gains to continue."
It wasn't until Emanuel came up to the front and began to speak that someone from the very back of the crowd shouted, "Don't black students on the South Side [need support?]"
That was met with objection from parents, who shouted remarks in response, and then began chanting "Go Lincoln!" as a group.
Unable to get the attention of the rowdy crowd, Emanuel decided not to give his remarks, saying, "Let's just cut the ribbon now." A mayoral spokeswoman stated before the event that Emanuel would not be taking questions at the event.
Immediately after the ribbon was cut, Asif Wilson, one of the three latest members to join the Dyett hunger strikers, engaged in a heated argument with Claypool, in which the two exchanged strong words back and forth.
"Two years ago, parents told CPS: Don't build this annex. What about all of the black students? People are still striking. [Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] and [Forrest] Claypool can show up to this event but they can't show up for the strikers," Wilson told DNAinfo Chicago in the midst of the chaotic scene.
A Dyett supporter and Lincoln Park parent traded barbs at the Thursday ceremony. [DNAinfo/Mina Bloom]
At the same time, parents who came for the ribbon-cutting ceremony traded barbs with Dyett strikers and supporters. Some needed to be physically restrained by other people at the event before they came to blows. One of the parents, who declined to be named, burst into tears.
Solving the overcrowding problem at Lincoln has been controversial, with some questioning whether it was getting more attention than other schools with worse problems because it was in affluent Lincoln Park. According to CPS enrollment statistics, there were 61 schools systemwide that were more overcrowded than Lincoln as of November of 2013.
Chicago Public Schools could not provide this year's statistics Thursday evening.
When asked for a comment on the chaotic scene, an unfazed Smith simply said: "We're here today to celebrate the opening of a new building to educate our children."
Principal Armendariz declined to comment on the scene, referring all questions to Chicago Public Schools. He would not allow DNAinfo Chicago to take pictures of the classrooms on the second floor, even as parents and children toured the facility.
Similar to the event in November of 2013 held to announce the building of the annex, which was criticized at the time for being secretive so as to hide the project's detractors, Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony was not widely publicized. A DNAinfo Chicago reporter initially learned of the event from a parent, and the alderman's office did not send out an official invitation until Thursday morning.
Over the last few years, there have been countless public meetings on how to solve the overcrowding problem. Some parents wanted to see the school's boundaries changed, and others feared Smith was going to compromise with developer Daniel McCaffery, chairman and CEO of McCaffery Interests, to allow for higher density on the former Children's Memorial Hospital site in exchange for allowing a school to be built there.
Smith and parents in the area have argued the move to alleviate overcrowding at what some call the "crown jewel of CPS" was needed to stop families from moving out of the area.
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