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City commission to decide fate of shuttered public schools

Parents bring students Trumbull Elementary School for last time  Monday June 24 2013. Trumbull is one about 50 shuttered

Parents bring students to Trumbull Elementary School for the last time on Monday, June 24, 2013. Trumbull is one of about 50 shuttered Chicago Public Schools. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: September 24, 2013 6:36AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is appointing an advisory committee to decide what to do with nearly 50 shuttered Chicago Public Schools that residents fear could be turned into charter schools or sit vacant and become magnets for crime.

The 13-member committee of aldermen, community developersand officials from foundations and city government, will be chaired by Wilbur Milhouse, owner of one of Chicago’s largest African-American construction and engineering firms.

Milhouse said there are a “ton of ideas pouring in” about what to do with the buildings and the possibilities are “somewhat unlimited.”

“In other cities, I’ve seen them take schools and make them into urban gardens, theaters, community centers or mixed-use loft space. I’ve seen them repurpose schools to where other agencies could utilize and rent out the space,” he said.

“Each community is different,” he said. “We’re really gonna engage with the community and find out what they need and want and what shape the buildings are in. Some people will take a building in bad shape and make it into something marvelous. It just costs more money. I look at this as an opportunity to revitalize communities.”

During marathon public hearings on school closings, residents unleashed their anger. They’re afraid shuttered school buildings will either sit vacant or be turned over to charter operators, essentially privatizing public schools.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said repeatedly since announcing her intention to close schools that none of the closed schools will be given to charter operators.

Milhouse said there is no chance that school buildings will remain vacant. They will simply be “boarded up and locked up tight” as part of what he called a “hibernation phase” while awaiting future plans and developer proposals.

As for the charter theory, Milhouse said, “I can’t say that, if that community says they want to make it a charter school that we would say no. That hasn’t been given to me as a parameter to stop any community from turning it into a charter school.”

Several of the 13 panel members — who will not be paid for their service — have ties to Emanuel and to former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Andy Mooney, a former executive durector of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, is an Emanuel appointee to the Department of Housing and Economic Development. Ricardo Estrada, of Metropolitan Family Services, previously served as first deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services and was appointed to then-Mayor-Elect Emanuel’s transition committee for social services and health care. He also is a board member of the Erie Elementary Charter School.

Another committee member, Julia Stasch of the MacArthur Foundation, was commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing and later chief of staff to Daley, according to the foundation’s website.

In a news release announcing the committee, Mayor Rahm Emanuel charged Milhouse with “re-engaging” the buildings “as vital and vibrant community assets.”

“The city of Chicago has an opportunity to use these facilities to revitalize our economy in key areas and expand opportunity for Chicagoans in our neighborhoods,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

“I look forward to reviewing the recommendations after the committee’s extensive community input process and careful consideration of what is best for our future.”

Emanuel’s decision to close nearly 50 schools all at once has put him on the political hot seat to safeguard thousands of displaced students and to deliver on his promise to improve their new schools.

But the question of what to do with the closed school buildings is yet another political quandary.

Earlier this year, black ministers whom the former Mayor Richard M. Daley counted among his most loyal supporters broke with Emanuel on the volatile issue and called it a “land grab” that could damage the mayor’s re-election chances.

“To have an education exodus and economic disinvestment in the middle of a violence crisis is not in the interest of these communities, particularly the most vulnerable children from the most fragile families,” the Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim MB Church, said at the time.

Hatch had noted that West Garfield Park, where his church is located, stood to lose five elementary schools. That has fueled speculation that the school closings set the stage for a land grab.

“I wouldn’t say that’s the goal, but that’s gonna be the effect. When you close the schools, it moves people off the land and allows real estate speculators to buy land at cheap prices. All of these properties will eventually be banked and bought for little or nothing,” Hatch said.

The mayor has charged the committee with conducting an “extensive and rigorous review” of shuttered school buildings and their surrounding neighborhoods. That includes demographic, economic and crime trends, abandoned buildings nearby and city plans for the community.

Ultimately, Emanuel wants Milhouse and his team to categorize the buildings “according to their potential for strategic repurposing” and set up a process for engaging area residents, “soliciting and reviewing” specific proposals and implementing those plans over a designated time frame.

CPS still owns another handful of empty buildings from the past decade of closings that, while on the market, have yet to be sold or leased, but this committee won’t consider any of those, Milhouse said.

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