When future historians view the wreckage Mayor Emanuel has made of public education in Chicago, I'm sure the conversion of Ames Middle School into a military academy will not top the list.
No, it will undoubtedly rank below the cuts, closings, firings, high-stakes testing, and political games he's played. If he'd only limited himself to ribbon cuttings and left the schools alone.
But the looming debacle at Ames is a good example of those head-shaking maneuvers in which the mayor manages to create a problem where none exists.
In all fairness to Mayor Emanuel, the idea of turning Ames into a military academy wasn't his—it was the brainchild of 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado.
I'm not sure what exactly inspired the alderman, and he didn't return my call to explain.
But according to a 2012 interview he gave to Mark Brown of the Sun-Times, he saw some kids flashing gang signs in the hallway at Ames one day a few years back. And he essentially said, that's it—I'm turning this into a military school!
Technically, he proposed to move an existing high school—the Marine Math and Science Academy—from its current location on the west side to Ames, at 1920 N. Hamlin in Logan Square.
His proposal didn't sit well with the Ames parents. Not that they support gang-sign-flashing in the hallway—it's just that they think there are more practical solutions to discipline problems than sending in the marines.
Moreover, Ames is a relatively new school that the locals pressured former mayor Richard M. Daley into building in 1998, after many protests, to alleviate overcrowding. So it had a symbolic importance.
"This is a community school—it's open to everybody," says Emma Segura, a member of the Ames local school council. "My children love it. You shouldn't just take it away from the community."
The LSC was joined in opposing the conversion by members of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which had been instrumental in convincing the Board of Education to build Ames.
At the outset it looked like they were in a good spot. "There are no plans to change Ames Middle School into a military academy," school board president David Vitale said at the December 2012 board meeting.
"This is a community school—it's open to everybody. You shouldn't just take it away from the community."—Emma Segura, a member of the Ames local school council
When Segura told Vitale that Alderman Maldonado was still pushing the cause, Vitale said: "Sometimes you have to stop listening to all the rumors in the neighborhood. And if you want, you can give me a phone call to find out if anything's changed."
Translation: stop bugging me about this!
But Alderman Maldonado was undeterred. At a meeting last summer, he urged board members to move the marine academy to Ames.
After the alderman finished his comments, Vitale said that the board can't just close one school and move another into its building.
Well, of course they can—but there are rules that govern such matters. And officials have to at least give the appearance of following procedure, which takes time.
Eventually, the matter came to the mayor. He had a tough call to make.
If he ruled with Maldonado, he'd have to deal with a bunch of angry parents. Not that angry parents have ever stopped him in the past—unless they're from the north side.
On the other hand, if he sided with Maldonado, he'd have the alderman's undying loyalty forever—though he may have it anyway, since aldermanic loyalty generally comes with the office.
On October 29 the mayor announced his decision. Sorry, parents—the marine academy is taking over Ames.
"A day of triumph," Maldonado told reporters.
Apparently, CPS officials had to break the news to the mayor's office that technically they couldn't just close Ames and move the military school there without going through all that procedural mumbo jumbo that Vitale was talking about.
So within a day, the mayor's office issued one of its famous clarifications: the marine academy wasn't moving to Ames—it was staying on the west side.
Instead, the mayor was going to create a brand-new military school—the Marine Leadership Academy at Ames—and put it into the Ames building. Got it?
The confusion was blamed on some lowly scribbler in the press room who had supposedly messed up the news release. Which is sort of like General MacArthur blaming the stalemate in Korea on Radar O'Reilly.
In any event, Alderman Maldonado was furious, blasting CPS for going back on its word—and briefly leading me to hope that this might just be his first step toward independence.
Silly me. Within hours, the alderman and the mayor had made up. Maldonado apparently came to the conclusion that any military school at Ames was better than no military school at Ames.
And everyone was happy—except for the folks at the marine academy, who had been looking to move out of their west-side location.
And, of course, the parents and students at Ames weren't too pleased either, since they had their school snatched away despite the school board president's assurances to the contrary.
Yet all is not lost for them. In December, Ames backers gathered the signatures needed to put the matter to voters. A nonbinding referendum question will appear on the March 18 primary ballot in eight precincts around the school: "Should Ames be maintained as a neighborhood school, rather than be converted into a military high school?"
The Ames activists say they plan to show up at the board meeting this week to ask their good friends on the board—Vitale included—to hold off on signing any construction contracts on the marine school until after the referendum. If the vote is an overwhelming yes, it's going to be hard to justify spending precious resources to fold the neighborhood school, especially since two other buildings in the area are empty after being closed last year.
By the way, this is as good a time as any to mention that the mayor is planning to spend about $7 million in public funds—from his tax increment financing pot—to prepare the Ames building for the marine academy.
Somehow I knew this was going to cost us money.
The Ames parents are backed by First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno, Cook County commissioner Eddie Reyes, and state senator William Delgado.
At the moment, Maldonado's closest ally is Reverend Walter "Slim" Coleman, who used to be a leftist activist in Uptown and now serves as the pastor of a church in Humboldt Park.
Man, stick around this town long enough and you'll see it all.