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After questions about new SE Side school, mayor’s office fills in blanks

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

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Updated: October 18, 2013 6:08AM

The shrieking erupted the second an architectural rendition of the planned addition to Wildwood Elementary School became visible, even before Mayor Rahm Emanuel entered the classroom to announce details of the annex he’s proposing to build on the badly overcrowded Edgebrook school.

Monday’s announcement of a new Northwest Side school construction project was a far cry from the amorphous announcement Emanuel made Sunday night about a plan to build a new Southeast Side school on a polluted parcel of land — once owned by the relative of a disgraced former alderman. As concerned Gallistel Language Academy parents tried to ask questions about the fate of their own building, Emanuel walked out, leaving Ald. John Pope (10th) to attempt answers.

Wildwood parents, however, applauded the mayor’s plan that’ll add a dedicated lunchroom and 16 classrooms to the school CPS deems at 175 percent capacity — or serving some 420 kids in 2012-13 in a building meant for 240, according to the formula the district used to close schools. Flanked by Ald. Mary O’Connor (41st), state Sen. John D’Amico (D-Chicago), and Board of Education vice president Jesse Ruiz, Emanuel said “Making sure kids can read, making sure they understand the fundamentals . . . that’s the challenge, not how to figure out how to shuffle kids from one end to the other [of the school] because you have no space.”

As mayor left the building, refusing to answer questions from the news media, Principal Mary Beth Cunat, who’s testified before the Board of Education with parents asking for any solution to the overcrowding, said she didn’t believe the plan until she heard it “from the horse’s mouth.”

She’ll finally get an office instead of boxes in a closet; her kids won’t have to learn in hallways, either. Her annex will start construction in the summer of 2014 and will open in fall 2015.

“This is really happening,” she said as an ecstatic parent approached, screaming, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Another mother of a 6th grader, a 1st grader and a preschooler, Holly Gutierrez said the school has managed well with the little space it’s had.

“We have gone through everything from switching classrooms to multiple years in the mobiles [temporary classrooms], to sitting in hallways, eating the classrooms, we’ve seen it all,” she said.

State capital money will pay for both new projects in the cash-strapped district, according to Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management.

Gallistel Elementary, 10347 S. Ewing, is the fifth most overcrowded school within CPS. Its supporters question the land deal and worry their school could be neglected as the new one is built at 104th and Indianapolis, according to Quinn, for $35 million. It’s not set to open until 2016.

They and nearby Jane Addams Elementary at 10810 South Avenue H will get improvements paid for by a mix of tax-increment-financing and CPS capital dollars, she said. Quinn did not put a pricetag on those renovations, but specified that $1 million would be available in 2014 from the Lake Calumet Area Industrial TIF. That TIF closed the books on 2012 with a balance of $14.6 million.

The land deal that benefitted members of the clout-heavy family of disgraced Ald. Ed “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak family raised eyebrows in the community. But, Quinn said the site for the new school was “chosen and purchased several years ago by the previous CPS administration” because of its size and the fact it is “within the attendance boundaries” for Gallistel and Addams.

As for concerns about environmental contamination at the site and its proximity to the nearby expressway, Quinn insisted that parents have nothing to fear.

The Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission has thoroughly assessed land conditions, as required by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and three environmental studies showed that the site could be used for a school eventually.

IEPA spokesman Andrew Mason said that as of July 2011, benzene contamination had been leaking into the soil from a 5,000-gallon gasoline tank that was part of the gas station formerly on the site.

“The cleanup has not been completed,” Mason said Monday. State law requires school districts in Cook County to go through an IEPA Site Remediation Program before being allowed to erect a new school, he said.

Essentially the same Emanuel-appointed board that voted in May to close a record number of CPS schools also voted in August 2012 to buy the parcels of land for a Southeast Area Elementary School in the 10400 block of South Indianapolis, approving the total cost of the project for the land, planning and any demolition at $9.5 million.

During the school-closing process, CPS characterized Gallistel as overcrowded, saying it was at 202 percent capacity with 1,393 students at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year in a facility whose ideal capacity was 690 students. Its enrollment had dropped about 3 percent over the previous year, though, according to the district. Addams is the eighth most crowded school, with 901 children in a building meant to hold, according to the CPS formula, 480 kids.

The Gallistel community does want relief to overcrowding at their school, which is split up into six buildings. Parents have been asking for help since the 1990s. But they don’t want Gallistel or its students to be forgotten.

Gallistel LSC chairman Jose Garza said the new school nearby means “you’ll have the haves and have-nots” in the community.

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman and Mitch Dudek

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