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Many in Austin oppose any more school closings — even for new school

State Rep. La Shawn Ford. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Community members in Austin said Wednesday they don’t want Chicago Public Schools closing any more schools on the West Side even if they’d get a brand new elementary school in exchange.

And their input matters because proposed rules CPS released late Friday afternoon could allow more unpopular closures after June if they’re proffered by principals, parents or yet-to-be-defined “community members”.

CPS still falls under a five-year school closing moratorium imposed in 2013 when it shuttered a record 50 schools, mainly in African-American neighborhoods. Officials have since found ways to close a few more, and are about to shut down four high schools in Englewood after agreeing to replace them with a brand new $75 million school. The reasons given: dwindling enrollment combined with strong community support for a new facility.

Meanwhile, CPS officials have been speaking with elected officials, including state Rep. La Shawn Ford and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) about Austin’s schools, which are not exempt from district-wide shrinking enrollment. Ford listed Spencer Technology Academy, Hay Elementary Community Academy, Lewis Elementary and Leland Elementary School on his meeting agenda as the possible targets for closing due to underenrollment.

He and about 30 community members — including the Westside Health Authority, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), the NAACP, and staffers from local schools, including charters — agreed to send a letter to school officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announcing their unity in demanding no more closures in Austin, which bore the brunt of the last round.

“We agree that no schools should close any more in Austin, can we do that together?” Ford asked at a community meeting Wednesday, prompting all hands to raise. “That’s an accomplishment right there.”

Longtime Austin activist and CPS mom Wanda Hopkins added that “We closed enough schools, we got extra dollars. Leave those schools alone.”

In 2013, Leland became an official “welcoming” school for kids from two schools that closed. Its current principal had lost his job leading Ames Middle School after Marine Math and Science Academy High School moved into Ames (the original Marine was closed for lack of students after kids were encouraged to transfer to the new campus).

Dwayne Truss, a member of the Austin Community Action Council, said that “CPS came to several of us to go float the idea of, we’re going to close four schools in order to build this one state of the art elementary school. And it was like, ‘No, if you want to build an elementary school, build an elementary. Why close existing schools? We’ve been there and done this.’”

And Quiwana Bell of the Westside Healthcare Authority said: “We had some conversations with Ald. Mitts’ office. She had some discussions around the rumored — it’s rumored that four more of our elementary schools are slated to be closed. And if that’s the case, what do we want to say to that? What is our response to that?”

After meeting with CPS officials, Mitts suggested consolidating elementary schools into a new one to Austin Community Action Council members, according to Truss.

He serves on that advisory council, which had proposed the consolidation of three tiny and shrinking high schools in the old Austin High School building, 231 N. Pine, into a single, stronger school that reopened last September.

Mitts’ chief of staff, Chris Carter, confirmed her meeting with CPS CEP Forrest Claypool, but said he wasn’t present. The alderman couldn’t be reached Wednesday.

“If I had to guess, she’s against it,” Carter said, noting that Hay and Lewis are in the 37th Ward.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in emails that “CPS has not suggested any specific school actions, nor asked anyone else to.

“Any proposal for a new school or changes to the configuration of schools in Austin must be initiated and planned by the community. CPS will then, and only then, consider such a plan,” she wrote.