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School closings: The latest blow to neighborhoods already reeling from disinvestment

by Mick Dumke - Chicago Reader  |  03/01/2013

ILLUSTRATION: A vacant home around the corner from John Cook elementary school, one of six in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood that could be closedThe cost-benefit analysis of closing schools isn’t always clear from the vantage point of Auburn-Gresham.

It’s a working-class neighborhood with sturdy bungalows and deeply invested residents, including cops and other city workers, many of whom have lived there for decades. But 79th Street and the surrounding residential blocks are dotted with vacant board-ups, a reminder that resources have left the community and a threat that more could follow.

Two years ago, soon after he took office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited the neighborhood to announce a new effort to rehab vacant properties and rent or sell them to working families. He emphasized that the stakes were high, since empty buildings attract crime and send a message that the community is in decline.

“When a property forecloses, every other house on the block immediately loses $7,000 in value,” the mayor said. He vowed to line up more than $50 million in federal and private money for the program.

Yet if the mayor and his aides go ahead with their plan to shutter dozens of public schools, they could undermine their own work and add to the disinvestment crisis.

Last month Chicago Public Schools officials released a list of 129 elementary schools that could be closed. Emanuel and schools officials say some closings are necessary to save money and consolidate resources.

But no one seems to know whether the savings will be more than the uncalculated expenses. Among the costs: an additional loss of people and investment, and a growing bill for public safety.

In other words, what's the cost of slowly pulling the plug on public services in neighborhoods desperately in need of them? Is it greater than the expense of reinvesting in them?

Closing schools "sends a subliminal message," says Michelle Lee-Sebastian, an Auburn-Gresham block club leader. "It says, 'There's nothing in your community—anything productive you want to do, you have to leave the community.'"

At the very least, the school district would be sealing up dozens more buildings in neighborhoods already sagging under the weight of vacant properties—places that, not coincidentally, are also coping with crime and the loss of working-class jobs.

In January the foreclosure rate in Illinois ranked third nationally, and Chicago's was seventh among cities. There were 37,000 foreclosures across Chicago in 2011 and 2012, including about 900 in Auburn-Gresham alone, according to the nonprofit Woodstock Institute.

Six schools in Auburn-Gresham could be closed by CPS.

After battling city officials and banks to take responsibility for vacant homes on her block, Lee-Sebastian is worried about what could happen with the shuttered schools. "The city's not maintaining the unoccupied buildings already out there."

The same story is underway in the other neighborhoods with schools on the closure list—most of them on the south or west sides.

They include long-distressed Englewood and West Englewood, where, after 1,300 foreclosures in the last two years, 19 schools could be closed. People are leaving and many of them aren't coming back, and officials are planning to turn a large swath of Englewood into a rail yard.

But closings could also hit gentrifying areas like the Near West Side, which has six schools on the list. Nearly 800 properties have gone into foreclosure there since the start of 2011.

In West Humboldt Park, community leaders have been feeling optimistic about the prospects of recruiting new businesses to Chicago Avenue. They’re trying not to interpret news from the school district as an ominous sign.

A few weeks ago 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr. regretfully told a meeting of West Humboldt Park block club leaders that Ryerson Elementary School, on Huron and Lawndale, could be closed because its population was down. It’s one of 17 schools in the Humboldt Park and Garfield Park neighborhoods on the list.

The conversation then turned to another neighborhood concern: vacant buildings, including boarded-up homes that were often used for drug dealing. More than 800 properties went into foreclosure in Humboldt Park alone in the last two years, and Burnett candidly said it was a problem that could only be confronted with more money.

He noted that one foreclosed property just a few blocks from Ryerson school had been fully rehabbed—a building where last year Mayor Emanuel held another press conference about his foreclosure plan. But Burnett said no one would rent it because the dealers on the corner scared them, and police couldn't get rid of the dealers because the dealers had a profitable business going.

“We keep running them off and they just come back,” the alderman said.

Burnett didn't have to point out that the narratives were all connected.

The judgment from the alderman and residents around the city is that Mayor Emanuel and CPS should proceed very, very cautiously. Otherwise they could end up helping to shut down neighborhoods, and not just schools.

Chicago Teachers Union