ROGERS PARK — Residents will have a chance to weigh in on the future of charter schools in the 49th Ward this fall with a non-biding referendum that will appear on ballots for residents in November.
Network 49, a political organization in Rogers Park, gathered more than 2,600 signatures over the last few months to successfully get this question on the ballot: "Should there be a freeze on expanding charter schools in the 49th ward of Chicago through new, larger, or relocated schools?"
"It's to send a message to every level of government that's involved with Rogers Park to say we don't any more charters here, nor do we want any expansions," said Betsy Vandercook, co-chairwoman of the charter freeze campaign. "It's something to put out there to test the wind, to let the powers that be know where we stand ... [Ald. Joe Moore] has made it clear where he stands on charters."
Ald. Joe Moore (49th), who supported both neighborhood charters UNO and Chicago Math and Science Academy, said the issue of charters in the neighborhood was relatively "dead" and a formal freeze on them would be "moot."
"To me it's kind of a moot point," Moore said. "It's kind of dead issue. There's no room for a charter in the neighborhood, none are talking about coming here, but if they want to put it on the ballot, more power to them."
Charter schools have been a controversial topic in Rogers Park for several years, and each of the networks affiliated with UNO charter schools and Chicago Math and Science Academy have been investigated for misuse of funds.
Rogers Park has five neighborhood Chicago Public Schools, though two of them could merge by next year.
In 2015, New Field Elementary led the charge in a community-wide push against Noble Charter School taking over the former St. Jerome building as part of the "Say No to Noble" group, which also included support from elementary and high school principals across the North Side.
After a rally and private meeting with Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), Noble representatives agreed to stay out of the neighborhood.
In February, residents learned Truman Middle College, an alternative high school that is part of the Youth Connection Charter School network, was eyeing the vacant St. Jerome across from New Field Elementary on Morse Avenue.
That plan didn't work out either.
Moore said it's unlikely a charter will attempt to move into the neighborhood any time soon.
In the case of Noble, Moore said a "wealthy benefactor" had offered to bankroll a $7 million rehab of the St. Jerome building, but that was an unusual circumstance. The cost of repairs is what ultimately drove Youth Connection Charter School network from taking over the building, Moore said.
"Unless you have someone willing to plunk down several million dollars for a rehab of St. Jerome's ... it just doesn't seem financially feasible for any other charter," Moore said. "Those kind of rich benefactors aren't just hanging around."
Still, Vandercook said she's "really, really optimistic" 49th Ward voters will send a message additional charters aren't welcome in the neighborhood.
"We're overwhelmed with the response," Vandercook said. "It's a really highly-educated community, and we've been battered by charters."
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