What happened to all the 'stuff' in Chicago's closed schools?

December 12, 2013

Linda Lutton

(WBEZ/Logan Jaffe)

Editor's note: Since this story was published, Linda Lutton reported the cost to empty out closed schools was double the original estimate (up to $18.9M). Less than a week later, that estimate grew to more than triple the original estimate (up to $30.9M). 

The question of whether to close 50 schools in Chicago earlier this year was a long and bitter fight. We’re putting that debate aside for now to answer a nuts-and-bolts question Curious City received about the closed schools.

Chicagoan Jenn Adams wants to know:

What will happen to all of the furniture, materials and supplies in the closing schools?

Jenn has good reason to wonder about that. She’s a Chicago Public Schools teacher on the city’s South Side. And while her school was not directly affected by Chicago’s school closings, “there are lots of other schools who are resource strapped,” she says.  “So is that material going to be redistributed? Is it going to be sold? What’s going to happen to it so it can help all of Chicago’s kids?”

Jenn says she knows that even in needy schools, there can be storerooms where materials are forgotten about. Not that long ago, she says staff at her school found some brand new Apple computer components — including a 5.25-inch floppy disk drive. It was never opened, and completely obsolete.

The stakes are high with so many buildings to empty out, and so many things to keep track of — so what is happening to all that stuff?

The (really) short answer

The quick response to Jenn’s question comes from Tom Tyrrell, the former Marine Corps colonel hired by Chicago Public Schools to oversee everything having to do with the school closings:

“We are repurposing it, to save money to put money back in the classrooms — everything that’s usable.”

How the process has unfolded turns out to be a fascinating story, one that involves a “mad dash” for school supplies, post-apocalyptic gymnasium scenes, and a lonely orange pick-up truck. It raises questions about what’s “usable” and how it’s repurposed. And there’s the cost of it all: more than twice as much as taxpayers were led to believe last spring, WBEZ has found.

The long answer

Since school let out in June, CPS has been packing, moving, sorting, cataloging, dumping and selling for scrap literally tons of things from the closed schools. Until very recently, six moving trucks a day were still hauling away books and materials. These include the big things people associate with schools—desks, chairs, books, calculators, computers. And also all the rest of the physical things in a school: security cameras, bulletin boards, lunchroom trays, printing paper, waste baskets, framed art, the principal’s coat rack, less-than-cutting-edge technology like overhead projectors and cassette tape recorders, and small American flags to hang in every classroom.

A total of 43 buildings are being emptied (not every school closing resulted in a closed building), some a century old. All the leftovers from a closed school will basically end up in one of five places, depending on their condition and desirability. They could be 1) in use in a current CPS school 2) in storage waiting to be put into an online inventory — and potentially returned to another school 3) sold for scrap, or to wholesalers, etc. 4) donated to charity 5) in the dump.

Curious City first asked Chicago Public Schools to help answer our question in early September. But it took the district more than two months before it allowed us inside Von Humboldt and Paderewski elementary schools to see the process of packing, moving and sorting that’s been going on.

What we finally saw was jaw-dropping.

Inside Von Humboldt Elementary, an entire corridor is filled almost to the ceiling with moving boxes, most marked “GWS,” for Global Workplace Solutions, the district’s moving company.

The auditorium has been taken over by reference books. Boxes sit like obedient children on the auditorium chairs. On the stage, towers of encyclopedias form a little skyline.

I page through a dictionary—well, half a dictionary since it’s only P through Z—with a $139 price stamped into it.

Tyrrell sees that as one $139 book that the district doesn’t have to buy new. His goal: get it into a school.

When you move a house, you pack it up room-by-room: kitchen, living room, bedrooms. When you move 50 schools, you pack by category.  And this school — all 150,000 square feet of it — is warehousing books from all the closed schools — textbooks, workbooks, reference books. Twenty thousand titles. Maybe 700,000 books, Tyrrell estimates.

Library books are being sent to the now closed Peabody Elementary. Desks and chairs are inside shuttered Paderewski Elementary.

I see a book with a familiar cover, a tree with golden leaves — the New Book of Knowledge encyclopedias. I think I used these as a kid! Yep. Copyright 1988. Ronald Reagan is president. The Soviet Union still exists.

Not all of this is going back into CPS, Tyrrell acknowledges. The goal is to get everything into an online inventory. CPS schools will have access to that in January, he says. Schools will place orders, and then have whatever it is — math workbooks or plastic chairs or science beakers — packed up and delivered.

And what CPS schools can’t use will be sold or given away.

“If you’re starting a school in another country, it might be OK if your dictionary is dated 2000 instead of 2012,” Tyrell says.

“Or if your encyclopedia is dated 1988?” I ask.

“Yeah, I mean it’s better than nothing,” he says. “ It’s golden for those children to be able to receive those books when they have nothing, and that’s how we’re gonna dispose of the inventory.”

Treasure hunt

Many things from closed schools are already being put to good use, Tyrrell says. Kids at receiving schools told me they do recognize things from their closed schools.

“Some books, and the calculators,” says Janisha White, one of about 100 former Morgan Elementary students now at Ryder Elementary. “They have that Morgan symbol on it — ‘Morgan School, 8407 S. Kerfoot.’” Kids at Bass Elementary recognize the purple bench moved from shuttered Woods Academy.

Principals from receiving schools got first dibs on anything they needed from the closing schools.

But there is so much more. Tyrrell takes me to Von Humboldt’s gym. More jaw dropping. Against the walls are boxes that haven’t been unpacked yet, stacked almost to the basketball nets.

Then there are the tables that run the length of the gym, piled high with everything you can imagine: copy paper, pens, games, puzzles, rubber dinosaurs, globes, an electronic microscope, Indian corn, boxes and boxes of scissors, a coffeemaker, scales, a new box of goggles, a little piñata (huh?), printing paper (the kind for little kids with the blue and red lines), 3.5-inch diskettes, flash cards, chemicals for experiments (labeled “Liquid A” and “Disease Indicator”), a soil test kit, permoplast modeling clay, pebbles, sand, molds, wood blocks, scales, beakers.

Tyrell says he knows there are science kits here somewhere.

Down a hallway, about a dozen workers sort books on carts, then wheel them to Von Humboldt classrooms. Classrooms are now labeled with the names of curriculum programs and publishers: Pearson, Prentice Hall, the popular Everyday Math.

It’s the same setup in another school — Paderewski — which is where CPS is storing furniture.

There’s a classroom there for circular tables, another for kidney shaped tables. One for plastic chairs. A room of 50 pianos. Another for janitorial supplies. One for American flags and inspirational posters — everything that makes up a school.

I notice a giant framed photograph: The eighth grade graduating class of West Pullman Elementary School, 1987.  

Tyrell says things like trophies and class photos could go to a community center, a library, a church or the new school. “We just have to find out where people want them,” he says.

“Is there a chance they’ll just be forgotten in the back of the closet?” I ask.

“Not our stuff,” says Tyrrell. “We’re anti-closet people. We’re the ones who are cleaning out those closets.”

Chicago is trying to avoid a Philadelphia. When auditors took the padlock off a closed school there, they found computers and printers, new band uniforms. A grand piano. That won’t happen in Chicago, Tyrrell says.

In case you’re wondering, movers have found no stashes of cash, no treasure chests.

“We did have a pickup truck in one,” Tyrrell offers. At Goldblatt Elementary.

“(We) were just clearing out a school and we walked into a little shop area, and there was an orange pickup truck — says CPS on the side,” says Michael Mudd, who is managing the school closings job for Global Workplace Solutions.

“There must have been a shop class there that rebuilt a pickup truck inside the school,” Mudd concludes.

It’s still there — a 1972 Chevy. Whoever gets Goldblatt Elementary gets the pickup truck with it, because there’s no way to get it out of there without dismantling it.

Moving costs are twice what the district estimated

Moving all this stuff, Curious City learned, is costing CPS twice as much as anticipated. The district signed a contract in April with Global Workplace Solutions for $8.9 million. That was to cover every aspect of decommissioning closing schools.

But in September, the district quietly signed an amendment to that contract. It more than doubles the amount to be paid to GWS, for a total of $18.9 million. Asked about the cost overrun, Tyrrell blames the sheer amount of material that was in the closing schools.

“The volume of stuff that we ended up moving was three times higher than we estimated it was going to be. It was stunning.”

Tyrrell says estimates based on closed schools in Detroit did not hold up in Chicago.

“We engaged (GWS) in an activity that had never actually been done before in American education, where you’re taking this many schools off line over this short a period of time.”

‘Mad dash’

Teachers have had their own window into the process of removing “stuff” from closed schools. They describe being allowed to go back into their classrooms to get materials, supplies, and furniture just before school started this year.

“The first week back, I think it was Friday, they let us go into Lafayette and kind of do this mad dash, grab what you can,” says Vince Monobianco, a teacher at Lafayette for 14 years before it shut down. He’s now at Chopin, Lafayette’s receiving school.

“You could have brought movers, and whoever you want — haulers — to take as much and whatever you wanted. But you had to be in and out by 6pm. There were people in there already with big moving vans and trucks.”

Manobianco, a gym teacher during his last four years at Lafayette, says he headed first to his office, where he had “squirreled” away math materials he would need at Chopin. “The gym had been pilfered. You know, looted. I mean it was just a wreck. Everything was gone through.”

He says some Lafayette teachers were in tears. “’Cause you were back in this building. Last time we had been in it, the rooms were set up. It was a well-functioning school. Next time, it’s like you were evicted.”

Monbianco said he looked for a speaker system in the auditorium, but he said another school beat him to it. “Four JVL loudspeakers on a mixer, big soundboard. Very expensive, it had to be a few thousand dollars. Gone.”

Manobianco says he still thinks of a messy pile of desks and chairs on top of the auditorium seats that reached up maybe 20 feet, maybe higher.

“It looked like they had to have been tossed from up above, from the balcony area, ‘cause it was just a heap,” says Manobianco. “It looked like an old boneyard of discarded automobiles...whale bones or something. That was so sad, to walk in and see good chairs, desks that weren’t that bad.”

Another teacher describes having to walk on books strewn across the floor to get to other books she needed for her third graders. Manobianco figures about half the things from Lafayette probably ended up in a dumpster somewhere.

Tyrrell says he hasn’t tracked the percentage of things that ended up in the landfill. “We were focused on the other end of the equation. We wanted to know where the good stuff was, not where the bad stuff was.”

But he says all furniture was “graded” three separate times, and the “vast majority” was moved to other CPS schools. “We're pretty confident that the items that went to the dump would have zero value to anyone.”

“A lot of that stuff I guess has more value when you’ve used it, and you know what you’ve used it for,” Manobianco admits, citing things like cassette tape players. “Look at it from the outside, and you’d say, ‘This is archaic!’”

Regarding the heap of chairs and desks at Lafayette, Tyrrell says teachers that day got a very limited glimpse of the overall operation. “If you’re trying to infer that we threw away things that were good and usable, that did not happen. The assertion that they were thrown from the balcony is ludicrous.

“He may have seen us in the middle of ‘sausage-making’ and it’s not a pretty process, but that in no way means that we were not properly disposing of stuff. We were, and we took great pains to do that.”

An empty school

By the end of November, movers had cleaned out 39 schools. I went with Tyrrell as he gave Pope Elementary near Douglas Park a final inspection.

“We walk the entire school from top to bottom, looking in every room, just making sure that there’s nothing here we want to come back and get,” says Tyrrell.

We walk into empty classroom after empty classroom. There’s not a piece of chalk here, no erasers. Teachers’ final instructions are still written on some chalkboards.

In the whole school, there is little left: the basketball hoops and the vintage scoreboard in the gymnasium will stay, unless another school requests them.

A small mosaic mural — maybe something kids helped create — still hangs in a hallway. It’s safer here than in storage, Tyrrell says.

Someone will come by to collect the stove, oven, and copy machine.

A black push-button desk phone in the main office — it looks new, but Tyrrell says it’s outdated — will be tossed, he says.

And with that, Tyrrell signs off on a verified empty school. The district will continue to move, sort, inventory, deliver, sell, donate and trash everything that used to be inside it.


What did they do with that? Here's how some specific items are handled:

Books: All library books from closed schools are being warehoused at closed Peabody Elementary. Textbooks and workbooks are at Von Humboldt — maybe as many as 700,000 of them, CPS estimates. Titles include popular, widely used math programs like Everyday Math, but also some oldies — example: test prep books for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a standardized exam the district stopped giving in 2005. All books at Von Humboldt are being entered in an online inventory; CPS schools will get access to it and be able to place orders in January. Leftovers will be sold or donated.

Furniture: According to the district, furniture was “graded” three separate times. CPS school closings chief Tom Tyrrell says the “vast majority” of furniture is currently in use at other CPS schools. Things like desks, chairs, and lunch tables in good condition are being stored at shuttered Paderewski Elementary, where classrooms are now labeled according to the furniture they hold. Room 201: student desks, light wood grain. Room 203: student desks, dark wood grain. There’s a classroom for circular tables, another for kidney shaped tables, one for plastic scoop chairs, and so on. Inventory will also be available to CPS schools online.
 
Technology: The district’s logistics and moving firm, Global Workplace Solutions, inventoried computers, printers, and other technology (at $5 a pop) and added a radio frequency identification label to all items. Computers were taken to a central location, cleaned, re-imaged, and sent out to schools.
 

Student art, class photos, trophies: This question came from a Curious Citizen on Facebook. The district says receiving schools had the option of requesting framed student art or school trophies, and some did. If the new school didn’t request the trophies, then they’re “probably in storage somewhere,” Tyrrell says.  Curious City found wall-sized class photos of West Pullman’s graduating classes stashed at Paderewski. Tyrrell says he’s not sure where the photos will end up.  “I haven’t planned for it yet, but the reason it’s still here is we’re not throwing it away.

Professional art: The district has a fat photo inventory of every significant art piece from a closed school. CPS principals can request artwork for their building. The art is in storage.

 

 

Murals: There were 45 murals removed from closed buildings, CPS says. All were removed by an art preservation contractor, which is also storing them and will restore and re-install some in other schools.

 

 

Student Records:  There were lots more of these at the closed schools than CPS expected to find. They are kept under lock and key, CPS won’t say where.

 

 

Anything with a student’s name or picture: In general, it is shredded. School newsletters, honor rolls.

 

 

Linda Lutton is WBEZ's education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation.