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

Posted by Mick Dumke on Fri, Mar 1, 2013 at 10:00 AM

A vacant home around the corner from John Cook elementary school, one of six in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood that could be closed
  • Mick Dumke
  • A vacant home around the corner from John Cook elementary school, one of six in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood that could be closed
The 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 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.

Comments (22)

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It goes without saying that closing a public neighborhood school can be traumatic for the community. Goes without saying. But are you arguing that the District should maintain half or less full community schools...period? I fully agree that when CPS closes a school they, and the City should pour resources into both the community the school is leaving as well as the receiving school. They are promising to do that. Will they...I don't know. But whether the City and CPS will or won't, should schools buildings that are way under-enrolled be maintained?

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Posted by Lamprey on 03/01/2013 at 10:51 AM

"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."

Did you read the last paragraph before posting? I did not see anyone arguing to "maintain half or less full community schools...period?"

The CPS and Emanuel are rushing like hell into this and many parents are asking why. What is the big hurry to close down schools when they admit they can't even tell us what the costs will be?

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Posted by EZD on 03/01/2013 at 11:28 AM

The problem is that CPS schools are by and large, NOT half empty. I repeat -- go find a half empty CPS school, I challenge you.

CPS has been disseminating a false narrative about the utilization in schools. Raise Your Hand and the Apples to Apples data project has found that:

1) CPS lost about 30,000 students (not 145,000) in the last decade. Meanwhile, they opened 55,000 charter school seats.

2) Their formula for school utilization is flawed. It allows for a classroom to have up to 36 children in it, and still be deemed "efficient." The formula vastly underplays overcrowding and inflates rates of underutilization. As well, the formula does not accurately take into account schools that have lower class sizes for special education students, English language learners, or simply deck their resources to keep class sizes small (and by "small" I mean 24 children in a classroom).

Not surprisingly there a proposal underfoot from ISBE to repeal class size limits for special education students. Shameful.

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Posted by somos americos on 03/01/2013 at 12:54 PM

I think it is also important that CPS factor in the fact they can't predict the future, and that once a school is closed (and presumably sold) it is very hard to build a new one.

Audubon and Hamilton are two north side schools (I am guessing there are many) that were until recently "underutilized" & on the chopping block, and are now bursting at the seams just trying to accept kids in their immediate boundary areas.

My understanding is that what turned those schools around are new principals who were given more freedom (but a deadline to show progress), as well as parents who started volunteering far more regularly. This formula seems repeatable.

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Posted by The Welshman on 03/01/2013 at 1:06 PM

So glad to see the school closing issue being reported on in this context. It is part of a larger problem: "Chicago's political economy -- like that of many cities -- channels resources to the most organized and prosperous neighborhoods. That's life in urban America. Every mayor in America -- whatever his or her ideology -- must cater to mobile affluent families and firms that support the tax base and a city's economic life. If we aren't careful, the end result can be to channel disproportionate police manpower, disproportionate educational, recreation, and other investments to upscale communities rather than to the places that need these resources the most. This would be a disaster -- particularly in a time of limited federal support for urban job programs and other supports we desperately need." ( )

@somos americos---yes! The CPS narrative of this year's set of school closings is absolute BS. If there is any utilization crisis it is one caused by CPS. The budget crisis is similarly ginned up. @Lamprey, do your homework; a little skepticism goes a long way when dealing with CPS:

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Posted by chitownmama on 03/01/2013 at 1:13 PM

Nobody trusts Rahm.

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Posted by Jenny on 03/01/2013 at 8:20 PM

"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?"

I have no idea how that applies in this context. Closing schools does not take away any public services from any residents. It does not cause anybody to no longer be able to use this particular service. Every school age child in Chicago will continue to have the opportunity to go to a public school. Consolidating public services is not the same thing as "pulling the plug on" public services.

"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."

I don't think the jury is still out on the question of whether state and local governments would generally benefit if they considered more than the positives and negatives to the citizens of a particular program or unit and whether spending a certain amount of money is worth it. The "uncalculated expenses" you are talking about involve attempting to take into account the aftereffects of fewer people working at the particular entity (in this case, schools) and other non-policy aspects of the closings. The problem with analyzing it that way is that it doesn't take into account that there is only a finite amount of money available and all savings from not spending money for these schools would undoubtedly be used in other ways. There would be programs throughout existing schools that could either be saved or expanded. This means more employment that there would otherwise be with regard to these people. So all the things that are often mentioned about service cuts regarding the economic effects of decreased government are persuasive. Government layoffs don't generally decrease the amount of employment or consumer spending compared with what otherwise would have been. They just mean some people may be employed instead of others. And they allow policymakers to better decide which programs or units would do the best good for the community as a whole, which itself helps such things as employment in both the short and long gun. And given the amount of vacant buildings there already (you mention 37,000 foreclosures in the two years prior to this one) the idea that another 50 or so properties would make much of a difference seems quite a stretch. And no doubt that many of the schools will be used for other purposes, such as community centers. I think there already have been proposals in some cases.

All you have to do to determine whether attempting to take account of the specific external factors you want to take into account benefit the citizens on the whole is to look at what has happened with the all the state government and all the city and county governments in the past few years. Has weighing the interests of government employees higher than the taxpayers and the people for which these government programs were intended been a good idea? We know that there have been quite a few hiring freezes due to poor finances. So that disputes the idea that avoiding job cuts helps the overall economy by maintaining people's salaries. And we know that because of budget pressures many programs have been unable to do much of the work they were intended to do, especially programs intended for the most vulnerable residents such as DCFS, and thus people are not served by government the way they should be. That has effects on the overall economy. If abusive situations in families are not stopped its more likely to do such things as increase crime decrease productivity, among many other things.

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Posted by The original IAC on 03/01/2013 at 9:28 PM

"I did not see anyone arguing to 'maintain half or less full community schools...period?'"


In the 8th paragraph of this article from last October, a CTU official said "no schools should be closed":… That's been the CTU's position.

"The CPS and Emanuel are rushing like hell into this"

They most definitely are not rushing into this. This has been discussed for months, as you can see from that October article. What would be the timeframe you would put onto this so that it fits your definition of not rushing into it? CPS has listened to feedback from residents and clearly have been taking much of it into account as they are narrowing down the list.

"The problem is that CPS schools are by and large, NOT half empty. I repeat -- go find a half empty CPS school, I challenge you.

CPS has been disseminating a false narrative about the utilization in schools."

People can choose to believe that, Somos Americos, if they want. Or they can just look at the data for themselves:… It's up to them., Immediately trust what they are hearing from the school reform opponents or look at the facts to see what the numbers are.

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Posted by The original IAC on 03/01/2013 at 11:02 PM

And of course, nobody has said that CPS schools are "by and large, half empty". They have said that many are close to half empty, which can be seen in the link from the Chicago Tribune.

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Posted by The original IAC on 03/01/2013 at 11:06 PM

For a detailed and unbiased look at CPS' data on under utilization, please check out Apples 2 Apples:

And here's a link to a "School Closure Guide" published by the Broad Foundation from 2009:…

CPS is merely following a script, as are the Sacramento and Philadelphia school districts.

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Posted by Shorty Lee Lowe on 03/02/2013 at 2:57 AM

I sent my kids to parochial schools K-12, with that being said that was a choice I made and not because we didn't have good public schools it was based on good academics and wanting them to experience the full content of their religion. I paid taxes for great neighborhood public schools for other children to use. I'm tired of Charters (UNO) high jacking my tax dollars for their school for profit. They cherry pick their students and throw them out when they don't conform to the ways. Last time I check it was not my definition of a public school. In my opinion Charters are a private school in a public institiution. Our neighborhoods are like war zones and already like Detroit. Whether you have kids in CPS or not if you care about the direction of the city do the research your self and get involve. We are on the path of Detroit, lets not let these Politicians put us there.

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Posted by Dolores Toolis on 03/02/2013 at 11:32 AM

@ the original IAC "...all savings from not spending money for these schools would undoubtedly be used in other ways..."

That line is from the Broad Document "School Closure Guide" Byrd-Bennett still works for them you know. She has permission from Rahm's school Board to draw two salaries at once. On page 23 you can find where Byrd-Bennett adopted her lines. “We recommend that...schools be closed in order that money currently spent on empty seats can be recaptured and applied in other ways to improve the education that our children receive.”…

The "underutilization crisis" is manufactured in order to justify mass public school closures.

Byrd-Bennett and Frank Clark of the Commission have admitted on seperate occasions that CPS' formula is deeply flawed. So is the annual "budget defecit". Last year CPS claimed nearly 1 billion dollar defecit then at the end of the fiscal year ended up with a $344 million dollar surplus! This has been the pattern for years. They are planning on what Bruce Rauner called "Blowing up the District" on Chicago Tonight.


Charters are very lucrative thanks to the New Markets tax credit, interest on loans and other incentives. Plus charters can subcontract out administrative responsibilities twice and pay up to 15% of CPS dollars (your money) each time. That's how even a non-profit charter can be a money machine. Finally if the Charter owns the school property it can rent it out or sell to those subcontractors, collecting the equity each time. Bruce Rauner has a plan on the shelf to buy up empty school buildings. and sell or rent them out to others.

It is no coincidence that ISBE is proposing eliminating SPED class size requirements even while CPS is hard at work blowing up the district. The reason is to create what reformers call a "Portfolio District".

The rule change is because a "Portfolio District" will subcontract out SPED services to a for-profit provider and in order to maintain fat profit margins the provider must be able to provide services inexpensively. CRPE claims that federal special ed laws like IDEA are a barrier to this type of educational "innovation".…

From the Center to Reform Public Education (CRPE):

“Under the portfolio strategy, government (whether in the form of a local school board or some other authority like the mayor) would be a performance manager, allowing schools to operate as long as they were the most effective available, constantly looking for better providers, and closing the least productive schools. Schools would operate under performance contracts and pay for services from independent providers, networks, or school transformation organizations. Schools would decide whom to hire, how to allocate their budgets, and what services to buy. All parents would choose schools, and schools would be funded based on enrollment.” From "Portfolio Strategies, Relinquishment, The Urban School Districts for the Future, and Smart Districts"…

The Broad document is the script for mass closures, but mass closures need to happen in order to make room for the "Portfolio District" model.

Kids, teachers, parents, and neighborhoods lose. Guess who wins?

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Posted by Timothy Meegan on 03/02/2013 at 6:22 PM

I think it's important to add the "buy low, sell high" mantra of investors to this discussion, and for this case, that mantra is spoken by real estate developers. We have seen it before, most recently around Bronzeville-IIT, and near Old Town (Cabrini). When schools close, poor, people of color leave areas, so upper middle class (young) whites can move in. Homelessness rises, so does joblessness, and the problem is kicked down the road to the next mayor.

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Posted by Adam Heenan on 03/03/2013 at 8:50 AM

I think there was more going in those two places than schools closing.

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Posted by The original IAC on 03/03/2013 at 3:53 PM

Mike, Look at the balance in your checking account, now write a check for twice the amount and see what happens. Where did our education system go wrong? Parents, pols, community leaders, reporters just don't get it. Can't spend what you don't have. "Burnett candidly said it was a problem that could only be confronted with more money" Doesn't make the situation any easier but it's a fact.

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Posted by Jaques on 03/04/2013 at 7:05 AM

if Chicago closes any more schools we are likely to see an increase in the number of children not completing high school. One of the biggest issues will be going into other communities, as an adult we may say that doesn't make sense but from a childs point of view it hard, when you go into other areas it possible that you may become the target of bullies in that area. Those riding CTA will have be prone to the non sense on public transport. I don't have any children in the public school system, but I feel that the Mayor needs to look at the it from all sides. In my community we are maintaining unoccupied properties using money out of our block club fees for property upkeep. If the city would fine the banks as it is an ordinance for vacant properties in the city thay could balance the budget. We currently have 4 properties that are currently unoccupied, one has been on the so called fast track for demolition for 2 yrs "i don't consider that fast track" I call it dragging your feet.

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Posted by voidedlime on 03/04/2013 at 8:25 AM

Looks like Rham is setting up a big confrontation with community activists. Maybe he will really pull out all the stops and propose some sort of massive urban contraction and consolidation plan, like what is being discussed in Detroit and Flint. (Except here it can be funded by and named after the Pritzkers, Rauners, etc.) Then, he can give those angry, uppity south siders a stern tongue lashing, captured in high-def, and use the footage if he decides to run for national office on a talks-tough-to-peeps-in-the-hood platform.

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Posted by Urban IV on 03/04/2013 at 3:44 PM

Enough with the charters and the magnets. Every child everywhere should be able to walk to his/her public school, which should have a library and a gym and a vibrant PTA. That's how we solve a lot of problems we are having.

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Posted by Cee Parker on 03/06/2013 at 12:05 PM


All or at least the overwhelming majority of the students who go to charter or magnet schools already had the ability to walk to their neighborhood school. They and/or their parents chose the charter or magnet school instead. So nice try with that argument. The neighborhood school system is a remnant of the time prior to the invention of motorized vehicles when it was not possible for a student to go to a school every day that was more than a couple miles away. There is no chance in the world that it would be set up in that manner if we were starting from scratch today. It's about time that we fully take advantage of the fact that there is now an ability for parents to choose from several schools in several locations when deciding what is in their child's best interest. The law should allow them to do that far more so than it does now. I don't think there should be a neighborhood school system at all, in the city or the suburbs. And kids in the city should be allowed to enroll in suburban public schools (and vice-versa).

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Posted by The original IAC on 03/06/2013 at 2:54 PM

@Cee Parker

I couldn't agree more. Neighborhood schools build and sustain communities.

By the way, check out the Tribune's article about how CPS is gaming the numbers to make its case for under utilization (…).

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Posted by Shorty Lee Lowe on 03/06/2013 at 6:19 PM

Does the CTU have the Tribune's permission to reproduce all or nearly all of the article on its website (I haven't looked close enough to see whether they edited anything out and, if so, what)? That seems to me to be copyright infringement. For those who would rather go to the source, here it is:…

"Neighborhood schools build and sustain communities."

How so? It certainly is tough to see how they do that in high poverty neighborhoods. The closer a school system goes with a pure neighborhood school model the more it traps the parents of poor children into only having one option available for their child's schooling. In almost every case, the neighborhood school in very poor neighborhoods is well below average.

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Posted by The original IAC on 03/06/2013 at 10:57 PM

And now the Sun-Times is doing the equivalent of declaring "Water is wet, Sun-Times analysis finds". The prominent headline on its website (which presumably will be the headline on tomorrow's cover) is "Black students far more likely to see their CPS school closed than others, Sun-Times analysis finds". Uh, duh. That's because the demographic changes in the past several decades has resulted in fewer families in west and south side neighborhoods that have a predominately black population. Some have pointed out that the increase in charters that have students enrolled from these neighborhoods are also a factor. These things are why neighborhood schools from these areas are far more likely to be under-enrolled. That is what CPS has made clear and it has been discussed throughout this whole process. All of the lists that CPS put out have made it obvious that the closings are almost entirely going to be in the west and south side neighborhoods that have seen the sharp decrease of school age children going to neighborhood schools. If the Sun-Times thinks it's in their business interest to state "Sun-Times analysis finds" to something that has been clear for several months and to which nobody has disputed I would bet they are mistaken. The level of demagoguery surrounding this issue has been quite unfortunate.

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Posted by The original IAC on 03/06/2013 at 11:44 PM
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