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Mayor Emanuel's latest school plan unites the city—in opposition

Critics pan the proposed financing and location of Obama Prep.

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You know things are rough for Mayor Emanuel when I'm the only one around praising his school plans, which is the case with his recent proposal to build Barack Obama Preparatory High School.

I'm with the mayor 100 percent on this one—OK, maybe more like 10 percent. But before he gets too excited, Mayor Emanuel should remember that I've been on the losing side of almost every mayoral fight in Chicago for the last 20 years, so having me as an ally is like joining forces with the Cubs.

It's hard to find anyone else who endorses Emanuel's plan to build Obama Prep in the middle of Stanton Park, near Division and Halsted.

Many south- and west-siders are against it because they see it as yet another example—as if more were needed—of the mayor's north-side bias. After all, the mayor closed almost 50 schools last year in poor black communities, claiming, among other things, that there was no money to keep them open. Yet he miraculously keeps finding money to build new schools on the north side.

I heard an earful on this subject from south- siders at last Saturday's meeting of the Coalition of African-American Leaders. They have a pretty good point.

Also, a lot of members of the police, fire, and teachers' unions are against the new school because the mayor plans to build it with $60 million taken from the tax increment financing slush fund. That would mean tying up even more of the fund's property tax dollars so they can't be put toward pension obligations.

So the union activists have a pretty good point too.

Even some of the mayor's most consistent backers in the City Council—like Fourth Ward alderman Will Burns—are speaking out. Burns wants the mayor to change CPS enrollment policies so that more black students get accepted into selective enrollment high schools like Obama high.

Anyone else? Oh, yes—there's a growing movement by open-space groups like Friends of the Parks to oppose the location on the grounds that we shouldn't turn what few parks we have into construction sites.

It's really hard to argue with that.

On the other hand, there are people like me who are pretty much in favor of building any new schools as long as they're adequately funded—and as long as Emanuel isn't doling out public money to private charters that underpay their teachers.

But wait—I'm supposed to be on the mayor's side on this one. So where were we?

First of all, there's the land issue. Mayor Emanuel is looking to build Obama Prep in what's left of the Cabrini-Green housing complex. Over the last two decades the city has spent tens of millions of federal and local dollars to demolish Cabrini and replace it with more-upscale housing.

Now the mayor wants to spend $60 million to build a state-of-the-art school that never would have gone up there when the area was actually Cabrini-Green.

At one time, such policies were called urban renewal.

The mayor announced his plans for Obama Prep at an April 24 press conference that caught most park enthusiasts off guard. That's because he'd neglected to tell anyone—even the members of the local Stanton Park advisory council—that he wants to build the school in the park.

It's hard to find anyone else who endorses Emanuel's plan to build Obama Prep in the middle of Stanton Park, near Division and Halsted.

Perhaps it didn't occur to the mayor that people in Chicago actually use parks, as opposed to private health clubs. Well, we should give the guy a break—remember, he's new to town. At one point Mayor Emanuel was caught by surprise when he realized that Chicagoans—including north-siders—still use libraries. He backed off his proposal to cut library hours and hasn't mentioned it since.

The curious thing about the Stanton Park plan is that there's already a vacant high school in the area that could house Obama Prep: the old Near North High School building, at 1450 N. Larrabee, which the city fixed up so that it could temporarily house Jones high school during a construction project about 12 years ago.

So here's my unsolicited advice, Mr. Mayor: if you feel compelled to put another selective enrollment school on the north side, house it in the Near North building and leave Stanton Park alone.

As with all my ideas that you borrow, feel free not to give me any credit.

Actually, it looks as though the mayor may at least be reconsidering the Stanton Park site. On April 28 he sent Meghan Harte, one of his aides, to meet with neighborhood residents and assure them that the boss really does feel their pain.

Like a loyal City Hall underling, Harte dutifully fell on her sword, telling residents that she took full responsibility for the "communication gap." As if mayoral aides dictate the implementation of policies.

Harte also said that the mayor chose the Stanton Park site because he wanted a central location for the school. But my hunch is that he wanted property in the middle of an area that's thriving enough to generate lots of TIF money, and he thought he could snatch this land without having to buy it or face opposition from a private owner.

In any event, Harte assured residents that Stanton Park was only a proposed site and not a final one. Translation: if you keep up the pressure, the mayor may very well back off.

Meanwhile, Alderman Burns is applying some pressure of his own. He wants to know how the city is going to ensure that more black students get accepted to selective enrollment high schools such as Jones, North Side, Young, and Payton, which is just blocks from where Obama Prep would go.

As the Sun-Times reported on April 28, black enrollment in these schools has fallen since 2009, when a federal judge lifted a desegregation consent decree. Last week Burns and Alderman Pat Dowell (Third Ward) introduced a resolution calling for hearings on selective enrollment policies.

"There are ways we can improve the selective enrollment process so every selective enrollment school reflects the diversity of the city of Chicago," Burns says.

You know, he also makes a good point. Mr. Mayor. You may be losing even me on this one.

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