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CPS cost Wells High School $1 million, athletic field, fundraisers say

Wells Community Academy High School has no athletic field, just a stretch of uneven concrete along Augusta Boulevard more suited to skateboarding than running. So the school was thrilled to find a partner willing to build a combo baseball-softball-soccer turf field for its students and community.

The Cal Ripken Senior Foundation agreed about two years ago to build its first field in Chicago, and secured $1 million of the $2.5+ million it would need from corporations. Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno committed another $150,000 from his ward capital fund, too.

But in December, Wells and the foundation hit a late snag when Chicago Public Schools told them that they would need to follow strict procurement rules. That meant the foundation either needed to raise the entire $2+ million privately, or else let CPS run the project with some public money and approved vendors, which would cost, the district said, about twice as much.

“We were never told in all these months,” Susan Nusbaum, a retired Wells teacher who volunteered to spearhead the field project, told the Sun-Times. “Everybody is devastated.”

On Wednesday, she will join Moreno to tell the Board of Education that it essentially cost Wells $1 million in corporate donations after the Ripken Foundation pulled back. The school still needs a field.

“I want to let them be aware of the fact that we have a pitiful, pitiful concrete jungle in the back of Wells,” Moreno said. “We all understand CPS is financially strapped, and we get it, but when the community goes out . . . to try to raise $1 million and we get nowhere with CPS — roadblocks, not a partnership — I think the Board needs to know about it.”

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in an email that the district examined the field project but said the field’s supporters hadn’t even submitted plans — plus their fundraising fell short.

“Unfortunately, the total funds for this field were never raised or identified even with CPS’ proposed contribution to the project,” McCaffrey wrote.

Asked why CPS never notified anyone sooner about procurement rules, McCaffrey said Central Office wasn’t involved until June; besides, the project wasn’t far enough along to lay out requirements.

Wells, 936 N Ashland Ave., is a neighborhood high school, open to all, enrolling about 535 students this year. Just south of the tony Wicker Park neighborhood, it counts 95 percent of its students as low-income. Once upon a time, Wells students used Eckhart Park fields, but nearby Noble charter schools now occupy them, Nusbaum said.

Nusbaum petitioned the Baltimore-based Cal Ripken Senior Foundation, which agreed to build a field, as it has all over the country, if enough money could be raised.

With extensive demolition required, the project topped $2 million, the foundation’s vice president, Chuck Brady, said.

UnderArmour committed $500,000 if it could time its Michigan Avenue flagship store opening with a groundbreaking, and if organizers could match it. Baseball Tomorrow gave $125,000, the Cubs Charities Diamond Project another $50,000. Ripken would have kicked in between $150,000 to $300,000 to finish the deal, said Brady, who flew to Chicago at least a dozen times.

But locally, no one could rustle up the rest, including Wells. The mayor’s office — which committed $6.5 million to improving youth baseball after Jackie Robinson West won big — wouldn’t bite, Brady said. Asked for $700,000, CPS countered with $350,000 and the news that if CPS contributed, it would have to control the project, Brady said.

“That’s what led me to believe that from the leadership in those groups, Wells High School isn’t a priority,” he said. “For a relatively small investment from both groups, they could have gotten a flagship facility from that school.”

Faced with grants about to expire from valued partners, the foundation took the money to Marquette Park to fund a simpler field renovation, Brady said.