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Mendoza vows to transform 50 under-utilized CPS schools into community anchors

Mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza is interviewed by reporter Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times newsroom Thursday, November 15, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Susana Mendoza. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza on Tuesday unveiled a bold plan to transform 50 “under-resourced” and under-utilized Chicago Public Schools in danger of closing into thriving community centers for adults and children alike.

If executed properly, Mendoza said her “50NEW Initiative” could be a “tremendous tool to push back the wave of violence that threatens the very fabric” of Chicago.

It’s also a chance to close the achievement gap between white and minority students and “right the wrong” of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top-down decision to close a record 50 public schools, she said.

“It was a big mistake not to involve the community in a discussion of how we use these school buildings, these community assets, to help uplift the neighborhood, instead of just turning out the lights and locking the doors,” Mendoza said during a breakfast speech before the City Club of Chicago.

“We can begin to right that wrong in the next eight years … because this is yet another place where crime and education are inextricably linked. … My 50NEW Initiative … can be a tremendous tool to push back the wave of violence that threatens the very fabric of our city.”

CPS has 150,000 more seats than students. Much of that excess capacity is in South Side and West Side neighborhoods hard-hit by a black exodus from the city.

Pressure is building for another round of school closings now that a five-year moratorium has expired.

Mendoza said if she is elected mayor, the moratorium on school closings would be extended for two more years.

That’ll give her time to pump new life into 50 under-utilized schools by offering empty space in those schools to neighborhood day care centers, family service providers, social service agencies and job training organizations.

Unions representing the building trades would be asked to shift their job training to community schools. Parents could learn new skills at night while their children get dinner and homework help.

The newly re-elected state comptroller was asked how she plans to pay for the new initiative at a time when Chicago is facing a $1 billion spike in pension payments.

She responded by pointing to the $70 million-a-year in “additional equity funding” for CPS that she helped lobby for in Springfield. And she talked about asking movers and shakers in the philanthropic and business communities for additional help.

“So many people that I’ve met with running for mayor have asked me, `What are you gonna do about violence in the city?’ Well, I’m gonna ask them, `What are you gonna do to help me fix the issue of violence in the city?’ “ Mendoza said.

“It’s gonna start by asking them to be generous toward creative, different-thinking, bold ideas that, frankly, will hopefully be transformational because that’s the kind of mayor I want to be. … I get one chance in my life to run for mayor of the greatest city in the world. In my wildest imagination, I would have never thought that I’d have this opportunity. So, you’d better as heck believe that I’m not gonna squander it.”

As a mom whose son attends CPS, Mendoza portrayed herself as having more “skin in the game” than any other candidate vying to replace Emanuel.

She set a goal of cutting the achievement gap between black, white and Hispanic students “at least in half” over the next eight years.

“I will view every educational decision through a simple prism: Does it help to close the achievement gap?” she said.

Mendoza is also the sister of a Chicago Police detective, which gives her what she called yet another “unique perspective.”

Restoring the public trust between citizens and police is “absolutely fundamental to reducing crime” that remains “intolerably high,” even after two years of progress, she said.

But that won’t happen until CPD improves a 17 percent homicide clearance rate she called a “disaster” and instills in its police officers a “completely different ethos.”

That means making the difficult transition from a “warrior mentality … inordinately based on fear” to a “guardian mindset” that turns police officers into trusted protectors, Mendoza said.

“Settling for the same old schools and the same old policing means more of the same old school-to-prison pipeline,” Mendoza said.

As for Emanuel’s plan to build a $95 million police academy in West Garfield Park, Mendoza said she’s all for the idea. But she said it’s “fair to critique” Emanuel for the “top-down approach that mostly ignored community input.” It’s also fair to “question the final cost” of the new facility.

She also promised to turn the new academy into a “true community hub” with space for local non-profits and social service organizations.