Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried Thursday to make amends with black voters who helped put him in office but abandoned him in droves after he closed a record 50 schools on the South and West Sides.
He dropped plans to name a new selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side — bankrolled by $60 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) money — after his former boss, President Barack Obama.
The about-face came after Emanuel did what he, too often, fails to do before unveiling his grand plans: listen to the community and build consensus from the ground up.
The same kind of negative groundswell forced Emanuel to abandon his plan to rename Stony Island Avenue for the late Bishop Arthur Brazier.
“Over the last few months, my team has listened to questions and concerns from the community, ranging from location of the building to the naming of the school. We take that community input seriously, which is why — as we continue to look for a thoughtful way to honor President Obama — we will look for other possible names for this future school,” the mayor said in a statement.
To potential and current mayoral challengers, it was one more stop in Emanuel’s rehabilitation tour—a pre-election effort to rebuild bridges burned over the last four years with alienated interest groups.
But they argued that it won’t work with African-American voters because, while the name of the school will change, the location of the showcase high school will not.
“This notion of putting one more selective enrollment high school on the North Side in walking distance to Walter Payton was a problem. You’re expanding Walter Payton. Now you’re gonna build another selective enrollment high school and name it for Barack Obama? Barack Obama is a South Sider. Plus, in Chicago, we don’t name schools after living people unless it’s a charter school, and they bought the naming rights,” said
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is considering a run for mayor.
“It’s one more desperate attempt at trying to be relevant in places where he’s not relevant. You can’t look at a list of insults to certain parts of town — closing police stations, closing mental health clinics, closing schools — and make it seem like this one act is gonna change something right before an election. People are not so easily fooled.”
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who has announced a run for mayor, added, “The bridges should have been built and kept up throughout the course of four years of this administration. They haven’t been . . . That kind of a school is what we need in every community. We need good quality education with good teachers who have the resources.”
Ald. Will Burns (4th), one of Emanuel’s closest City Council allies, commended the mayor for pulling the plug on his rushed plan to name Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school after Obama.
“There’s a strong concern with protecting the legacy of President Obama and his connection to the South Side of Chicago,” Burns said.
“It was a very quick decision. It was a well-intentioned one. It wasn’t designed to insult the President. But there had not been an engagement process. It was not an idea that had been socialized broadly in the African-American community prior to the announcement.”
Even Burns acknowledged that the name change alone will not be enough to appease black voters.
“The concern was that a school [is being built] on that part of town and our kids aren’t gonna be able to get in,” the alderman said.
“African-American voters are very concerned about substantive issues. The extent to which CPS is looking at its selective enrollment policy and thinking about what it can do in the short-term to boost African-American enrollment in the highest performing selective enrollment schools — those are things that are going to matter to African-American voters.”
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes the proposed school, was shocked and disappointed by the name change.
“I’m just hoping commitments are in place for the school,” said Burnett, who has spent the last few months lobbying for a site change away from Stanton Park.
“I understand all of the things going on with the name. My community will definitely be disappointed by that. But the main thing is having a good school in our ward and having 30 percent of the people in my ward being able to go to it.”
Top mayoral aides stressed that the selective enrollment high school — with space for 1,200 high-achieving students — would still be built on the Near North Side, but the park location may change in response to community concerns.
Whatever it’s called, the new high school is central to Emanuel’s plan to provide more high-quality options to prevent middle-class families from fleeing to the suburbs when their children approach high school age.
This year alone, applications for coveted spots in Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment high schools rose by 8 percent. That left 16,440 students vying for 3,200 seats.
Emanuel has defended the location — in the shadows of Payton and itsplanned $17 million TIF-fueled expansion — as driven by the need forboth accessibility and financing.
“Because it serves the entire city, it has two different rail lines, four different bus lines, open land and it’s all being funded by TIF. That makes the choices come down dramatically to literally less than a handful,” the mayor said on the day he announced the plan.
Until Thursday, Emanuel appeared to be using Obama’s name to sell the project and blunt criticism by black elected officials.
Their support could be pivotal during what could be a difficult re-election campaign that focuses heavily on the mayor’s education policies, particularly if Lewis enters the race.