Chicago Public Schools briefly posts plans to market, sell shuttered schools

The plans were taken down as quietly as they were put up.

March 15, 2014

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

At the end of February, Chicago Public Schools quietly posted notice that it wanted to hire a real estate broker to help the district offload dozens of vacant buildings left by the historic closure of 50 schools.

The solicitation obtained by WBEZ shows CPS had planned to walk potential brokers through the schools this past week. The schedule of school visits included one school, Canter Middle, that still has students (the school is being phased out).

The district’s move took communities by surprise. 

“CPS is doing walk-throughs for brokers, and they hadn’t spoken with the community about what we had planned to do for the buildings—to see what we might like to see,” said North Lawndale activist Valerie Leonard, who says she feels “deeply hurt and disillusioned working with CPS through school closures and their lack of transparency—I would say even dishonesty. I just don’t trust them.”

The mayor and the school district have said communities should have a say in what happens to the shuttered schools in their neighborhoods.

But the district’s request for a real estate broker—which was withdrawn as quietly as it was posted—focused heavily on marketing and selling the buildings and “maximizing revenue.”

CPS school closings czar Tom Tyrrell says the district halted its search for a broker because it wants to “clarify” language and make sure its process conforms to the recommendations made last month by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Advisory Committee for School Repurposing and Community Development. “One of the key pieces here is community involvement in an active role,” the chair of that committee, Wilbur Milhouse, declared when the recommendations were released.

Tyrrell says the district needs a broker to manage the disposition of more than 40 school buildings, but he said it’s a unique job. “This is not all market-determined, this is community-determined, to the extent it can be,” said Tyrrell.

CPS refused to provide a copy of the original RFP, saying it would “cause confusion.”  WBEZ obtained the RFP, posted below, through another source.

The solicitation includes a 42-page section of profile pages, one for each closed school, designed in a cute chalkboard motif. There are photographs of the schools taken prior to their closure and details to help brokers market and sell them and also navigate Chicago’s political landscape, including information about what ward the schools are in, and the fund balances of nearby TIF districts.

“I think that the main concern here is transparency, and the second concern is good planning,” said Jacqueline Leavy, an advisor to the General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which monitors decisions about Chicago school buildings. 

Leavy says the public has a lot to consider: Should some schools be preserved in case neighborhoods revitalize and the schools are needed again? How will sales revenue be used?

“These buildings cost millions to build, tens of millions to maintain and upgrade. So there’s real public taxpayer investment that’s been made into these buildings. Treating them like public assets and making good decisions about what happens to them next is just critical,” said Leavy.

Numbers contradict prior cost savings estimates by CPS
The request for proposals also contains estimates of the annual cost to maintain each school.

The figures provided contradict a key district argument about how much money would be saved by closing 50 schools.

Last year, CPS said it could save more than $400 million in “avoided” capital costs over the next decade by shuttering the buildings. That’s a figure parents and even school building engineers challenged as inflated

But now that CPS wants to sell the schools, it says the total cost to maintain them would be just $100 million over the next decade—a quarter of the original amount cited. CPS says that figure is lower because it’s not factoring in the cost of replacing boilers or roofs or other big-ticket items that it would have had to replace if it had kept the schools online.

The district is re-issuing its search for a real estate broker in the coming days.