The Politics of Overcrowding: UNO vs. CPS

November 9, 2009

Chicago Public Schools and one of its powerful charter school operators are in a bidding war over a northwest side school building, and both are playing with fistfuls of public funds. That's according to Juan Rangel, executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization, which already runs eight charter schools in the district and has permission to open three more. UNO wants to locate two of those schools -- one elementary and one high school -- in the old Notre Dame High School for Girls. Chicago Public Schools wants the Notre Dame facility for a new school to relieve overcrowding at nearby Reinberg Elementary, where hundreds of kids go to school in temporary classrooms that crowd the playground. "We put in a bid for close to $8 million," Rangel said. He says CPS offered more, and UNO countered. "Then they came back and put in a bid for $9 million. We're over a million over where we wanted to be." CPS didn't respond to a question asking whether district and UNO are indeed in a bidding war. Thirteen hundred kids attend Reinberg, which ideally should hold around 800, according to CPS. Reinberg has no lunchroom -- and because every inch is needed for classrooms, there's no music room, art room, science lab or computer lab either. "We're all squished," one girl told the Chicago Tribune in September. Rangel says that if UNO purchases Notre Dame, then kids in the area get three schools out of the deal instead of just one -- he's arguing CPS should build an additional school to relieve overcrowding at Reinberg. Rangel says it just doesn't make sense for the school district to compete with one of its charter operators. rangel at meeting Earlier this year, state lawmakers gave politically connected UNO (Mayor Daley chairs the group's capital campaign) a $98 million state capital grant to build schools. One of those lawmakers, Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago), has introduced a bill that would prohibit CPS from buying Notre Dame. He says he's concerned about a taxpayer-funded bidding war, but he favors UNO getting the building because he likes their programs. Rangel is listed on Arroyo's campaign disclosure forms as a donor. UNO is authorized to open three additional charter schools -- CPS granted the group another just last week -- and it will open those schools whether or not it gets the Notre Dame building. Originally, UNO had said that the elementary and high school it wants to put in Notre Dame would be located in Gage Park on the southwest side. CPS helped UNO out of a big facilities problem before school began this year, loaning UNO a building it had just shuttered. It was a controversial decision that opened up CPS to attacks by those who say the city favors its charters over regular public schools. So is UNO biting the hand that feeds it? No, says spokesman Mark Anthony Flores. "It's not about being ungracious. It's a about having [CPS] build a new school for a community that's extremely overcrowded." UNO has been an organizing force in the Latino community since the mid-1980s. They're known for their ability to turn out busloads of people; UNO parents far outnumbered Reinberg parents at the community meeting last week where CPS officially announced it's trying to buy Notre Dame. Many UNO parents testified to negative experiences with CPS schools and praised UNO for the education their kids are now receiving. A number said they wanted their children to be able to continue their UNO education at a northwest-side high school. uno parent Reinberg parents have been pushing for an addition to their school for years. CPS's chief operations officer said at last week's community meeting that an addition would cost around $25 million. CPS says acquiring Notre Dame is a cheaper option but wouldn't share specifics. It promises to outfit Reinberg with a lunchroom and other needed spaces if it can buy Notre Dame and can transfer kids there. Parent Joanna Pawlina said that while the politicians figure things out, Reinberg kids continue to suffer -- they have to wolf down lunch every day in order to get the hundreds of extra kids they have through the lunch line. reinberg mom CPS has added additions and extra buildings to the area, but hasn't been able to keep pace with overcrowding. Reinberg is one of 65 overcrowded schools in the city. If UNO gets the Notre Dame building it would have to enroll students from across the city and would have no special obligation to relieve overcrowding in the neighborhood; though CPS says that charters typically enroll about two-thirds of their students from the immediate area. Rangel says UNO's fight isn't against Reinberg -- in fact, he says the group is sitting down with Reinberg parents to figure out how they can work together. Rangel says he wants to double UNO's $98 million in public funds by using those dollars to attract private-sector donations and venture capital. He says CPS should be helping him do that -- the group's goal is to build eight schools with that initial public investment. That would make them the biggest charter operator in the state. One thing parents weren't told by either Rangel or CPS representatives at last week's community meeting: Relief will not come soon -- no matter who gets the building. It turns out there's a memorandum of understanding between the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Catholic Schools of the Chicago Archdiocese that prohibits anyone from operating a school in the Notre Dame building until January 2011. Sister Marilyn Kerber, head of the province of Notre Dame Sisters who own the building, sent the relevant chapter and verse: "SND agrees to put a restriction on any sale or lease to a person or entity that will operate the Real Estate as an elementary or high school stating that the person or entity may not operate the Real Estate as a school until after January 1, 2011." According to the archdiocese and the Sisters of Notre Dame, the idea is to give the new Notre Dame High School for Girls -- which has moved into St. Ferdinand's parish school --  a chance to get on its feet before a competing school takes over the building it occupied for 71 years.
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