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Why Chicago can't afford to demolish another school

Mayor Rahm shouldn't have shuttered Trumbull grammar school; it would be another big mistake to raze it.

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For the last few days I've been getting calls from north-siders wanting to know if they missed something while they were out of town on summer vacation.

Specifically, they're wondering if Mayor Rahm Emanuel is closing even more schools.

That's because they've been seeing signs around Ravenswood and Edgewater saying save trumbull.

So let me assure you, Chicago: the mayor's not up to his old school-closing tricks. Remember, this is actually his liberal phase, as he heads into the reelection season determined to show us that he's the second coming of Eleanor Roosevelt. If this keeps up, he'll start wearing a dress.

Besides, he can't close Trumbull because he already closed it. And even Mayor Emanuel hasn't figured out a way to close the same school twice.

The people putting up those signs are actually worried that he'll allow the Trumbull building to be demolished. That is, he'll sell the land to someone who will tear down the school and build, say, more condos, which north-side developers can't get enough of.

But first things first. The mayor closed Trumbull last year because—well, there's a difference of opinion about why he closed it.

The mayor said its enrollment had declined to the point where we couldn't afford to keep it open.

Trumbull's leaders said CPS had failed to take into consideration the crucial role the school played in special education.

At a hearing in February 2013, the principal begged the board of education not to send Trumbull's special-ed kids to the winds. But the mayor closed the school anyway—one of the 50 he ordered shuttered while on that infamous ski trip in Utah.

Look at it this way: he had to close at least a couple of schools on the north side, if only to look as though he wasn't just picking on west- and south-siders.

Now the question is what to do with Trumbull's building, which has been around since 1908.

No doubt there's some demand for the site, which is on the prime northeast corner of Foster and Ashland.

Earlier this summer, 40th Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor held a public hearing about the property, saying he would follow the board of ed's official guidelines for closed schools.

That is, he'd put together an ad hoc group of locals to help advise him. They would then ask developers to send in proposals. And eventually O'Connor would recommend a proposal to the board of education, which would have the final say.

Of course, that meant Mayor Emanuel would have the final say, since board members have made it abundantly clear that they don't go to the bathroom without the mayor's permission.

Alderman O'Connor did not return calls for comment, but he's said that he doesn't have a preferred plan for using the property.

He's also said he opposes spending tax increment financing on the project—thank goodness for that part, at least—and that whatever goes there should generate taxes for the city.

Mayor Emanuel had to close at least a couple of schools on the north side, just to look as though he wasn't only picking on west- and south-siders.

That would seem to rule out using Trumbull strictly as a school, since schools don't pay property taxes.

Let's think about this. As the mayor's floor leader, Alderman O'Connor carried the water for the mayor's plan to spend about $55 million in TIF money to buy land in the South Loop, effectively taking it off the tax rolls.

The city will then allow Marriott to operate a hotel and DePaul a basketball arena on that property without paying property taxes.

Apparently, Chicago is rich enough to afford a tax break for Marriott and DePaul—but it's too broke to operate a public school at Foster and Ashland.

Because Alderman O'Connor didn't rule out demolishing the school building, many preservationists assumed the worst: that there's quietly a plan afoot to do just that.

Obviously, preservationists in this town have been conditioned to expect the worst. As well they should.

And that's when the save trumbull signs started cropping up.

As the preservationists point out, the building was designed by noted architect Dwight Perkins and is a vintage example of the Prairie style.

"The big thing is saving the building," says Bob Remer, president of the Edgewater Historical Society. "That's very important."

Last week, Alderman O'Connor announced that he had received seven proposals for the property, including—surprise!—plans to turn it into condos and a grocery store.

Two private schools have also made proposals to use Trumbull. They wouldn't pay property taxes, but at least they would have to pay rent to the board of education.

For what it's worth, here's my suggestion, which is generally the kiss of death in the age of Rahm.

Let's try something really radical: planning. Instead of turning Trumbull into yet another grocery store or condo complex, think of the future.

Demand for public schools seems to be growing on the north side. In the last year or so, Mayor Emanuel has proposed spending tens of millions of dollars building an extension to Payton high school as well as a new selective-enrollment high school on the Near North Side. He's also promised to expand Coonley and Lincoln grammar schools.

If he can't bring himself to reopen Trumbull—thus admitting he was wrong to close it in the first place—the mayor should at least mothball it.

By that I mean he should rent it to a private school. That way we won't have to start from scratch and construct a new building in the event that there's a growing demand to reopen it.

The thing is, it wasn't very smart to close Trumbull in the first place. Let's not compound that foolishness by tearing it down.

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