WEST TOWN — Saying there are still too many questions left unanswered, the Ogden International School Local School Council stopped well short of submitting a proposed merger with Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts to CPS for approval Monday, instead approving a vague measure that leaves a consolidation next year in serious doubt.
With six members abstaining, the 13-person council governing the Downtown school narrowly approved a motion asking Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool to start "a community-driven process" exploring the much-discussed merger without a deadline.
The move pumps the brakes on Ogden's potential consolidation with Jenner, which by state law CPS would need to approve and announce plans for by Dec. 1 in order to take effect next school year. Principals of both schools introduced the idea in September as their preferred solution to their contrasting enrollment issues starting next fall.
"If we need to get something to CPS by Dec. 1 there's a lot that still needs to happen," said Thea Kachoris-Flores, a council member who voted for the measure. "I feel like I would not be doing my job ... to not continue this conversation."
The decision came after a marathon meeting full of public comments and presentations for alternative remedies for an overcrowding issue many expect to only worsen at Ogden's Gold Coast elementary school, 24 W. Walton St.
Ogden's council, which just last month unanimously voted to continue pursuing a merger, was apparently swayed Monday by parent concerns that the merger push felt rushed and left key details, including a combined school's impacts on staff and budget, unaddressed.
"I support the merger. I just think there's a lot that's unknown," said council secretary Jennifer Coufal, who abstained from voting.
Michael Beyer, who was hired as Ogden's principal this summer, introduced the notion of merging with Jenner, 1119 N. Cleveland Ave., after a top CPS official told parents the school district simply doesn't have the money to fund a new Ogden campus or annex anytime soon. Ogden parents also previously spoke out against the idea of sending students to another nearby school with room to spare: Wells Community Academy High School, 936 N. Ashland Ave.
So Beyer's attention turned to Jenner, which sits near the demolished Cabrini-Green public housing projects and he said only enrolls about 240 students in a building with immediate capacity for as many as 780. Speaking to the council and parents in attendance, Beyer said Monday that a Jenner merger would correct a "strategic mistake" to place Ogden's second campus, 1250 W. Erie St., in West Town.
"We're sitting in a building that used to be Carpenter Elementary ... it's two miles from [Ogden's] east campus. That makes no sense to me at all," Beyer said. "This school was chosen because the schools around Cabrini-Green were not desirable. This is an opportunity to right that strategic mistake."
Robert E. Croston, Jenner's principal, also spoke out Monday against "very veiled language around test scores" from parents opposing the merger. Nearly 98 percent of Jenner's students come from low-income households, and nearly all of them are black, according to CPS.
Despite the city's five-year moratorium on school closures following the shuttering of 49 schools in 2013, and a settlement calling for thousands of new Cabrini-Green homes, Croston worries his school will be on the chopping block next if Jenner doesn't boost its enrollment soon.
"The students of Jenner are like any child you are caring for right now," Croston said Monday. "They love life, they love order, they love structure. They look forward to seeing us each and every day."
Ogden's elementary, conversely, is at 105 percent capacity with no signs of letting up given torrid Downtown development. Beyer declined to comment after Monday's meeting, while Croston simply said Ogden's council's action displays democracy in action.
Now Ogden is looking to Claypool, who is bracing for the possibility of massive layoffs and a new teachers strike, to start a new "community-driven process" to simply "explore" a potential merger. Beyer told the council before the vote it's possible Claypool says "thank you but no thank you" to that plan, and instead asks Ogden and Jenner to demonstrate a merger's community support themselves.
A CPS spokeswoman did not immediately return a message left late Monday.
Despite nearly all Ogden teachers and a petition with more than 500 signatures endorsing a merger, the idea barely managed to get even a tepid show of support from Ogden's school council Monday. One more "abstain" vote, and the idea might have been killed entirely.
"If there's no support from the [school council] I'm not going to do this," Beyer said before the vote. "This has sucked up all my time the last couple months."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: