'Keep Out of McKinley Park!' Residents Voice Opposition to New Concept Charter School
Despite dozens of outsiders bused into the McKinley Park community to support a charter school that the Alderman had tried to foist on the community through the back door, residents of the McKinley Park community and the 12th Ward were clear in their opposition to charter school expansion during a heated meeting on May 7, 2013. The 12th Ward meeting was forced on the alderman by social media and Substance News investigations into the backdoor deal being worked out during a year when Chicago is not supposed to be expanding charter schools. Alderman George Cardenas, 12th Ward, has been maneuvering to open a "Concept Charter School" in the McKinley Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago for several weeks. On May 7, residents voiced their opposition to the plans for the charter school in the face of busloads of outsiders brought in to support the alderman.
The school, which has been supported by Alderman George Cardenas of the 12th Ward, was supposed to be located across from McKinley Park at 2245 W. Pershing Rd in a vacant factory building. Substance has already reported that the proposed site, which would have to be re-zoned for the school to go there, has toxicity problems. Residents of another part of town have already rejected the proposed expansion of "Concept Charter Schools" in Chicago. The charter school operator currently operates the so-called "Chicago Math Science Academy" charter school in the 49th Ward on the other side of town.
In the packed gymnasium of the McKinley Park field house, residents and charter school supporters numbered at least 120. The crowd was subjected to listen to speakers for almost an hour explaining and trying to justify the need for a new charter school in the area.
There were about 30 residents from McKinley Park proper supported by various staff from neighborhood schools.
Then there were the bused in people numbering 90 from another Concept Charter School, the so-called "Chicago Math and Science Academy" which is located on the North Side of Chicago — a full 17.7 miles away from the proposed site of the new charter school. There were groups of charter staff standing behind McKinley Park residents as a show of force wearing matching t-shirts. There was even a former Alderman, Mark Fary, of the 12th ward in attendance to support Alderman George Cardenas. Cardenas is promoting the new charter school, supposedly to "relieve overcrowding" in the area. The residents of Cardenas's ward want real public schools, not more charters.
Alderman Cardenas who is whole-heartedly supporting this charter, started the evening by giving a rendition of his life story and struggles as a young Latino in Chicago. Despite widespread universal opposition to the plan, Cardenas declared that he knew what was best for the area and that this school was needed because of overcrowding in the neighborhood schools.
Boos and statics were called out to refute the Alderman’s claims. CPS statistics show the complete opposite of what Cardenas is telling the residents. All neighborhood schools in the McKinley Park area are running "efficiently" and could add capacity if needed.
Cardenas was unabashed in his conflicting versions of reality. On the one hand, Cardenas made sure to clearly state that he supports Rahm Emanuel’s policies and would go forward with his policies because he knew what was best for the community. In a slip of the tongue Cardenas said that Pershing/Western is one of most dangerous intersections in city. This is the exact location of where this charter school is going to be located.
"Then why put the school there?" was the reaction from the crowd.
The alderman then passed the podium to Concept Schools spokesperson Salim Ucan who started by stating, "There are misconceptions about this process.” He then went on to try and explain to the crowd that all the proper procedures were followed. There were not too many specifics of the particular project that were explained. It was more about how this new school would provide what he called "choice" in this neighborhood.
To which teachers and residents in the audience yelled out that the schools were good in the area and this would take away much needed resources from the existing schools. One audience member made it clear that charter school movement had a direct negative affect on open enrollment public schools by taking away students from neighborhood schools.
“We do not need a new school, we need to keep the ones we have,” was shouted from the crowd. Another resident yelled out, “Outsiders do not have to tell us how to run our neighborhood.”
Mr. Ucan then passed the podium to Jeanne L. Nowaczewski, of the Illinois Charter School Commission. She went on to try to validate the "Concept" organization to the crowd. In one statement having nothing to do with the zoning issue at hand, she stated that the Concept charter school board of directors "has nothing to do with any movement, Gulen movement or any movement." To which the crowd gasped that a state official would openly take a position to argue against allegations of the alleged cult following from Turkey behind the Concept charter schools in the United States. Nowaczewski, like many other state and national charter school officials, got her start at the Chicago Board of Education, where for years she was in charge of what was known as the "Small Schools Office." After the "Small Schools" fad crashed and burned, her office was renamed the "Office of New Schools" and continued pushing charter schools for all of Chicago. Nowaczewski began her career with the powerful business group "Business and Professional People for the Public Interest."
When explaining the process by which the charter organization bypassed the rejection by the Chicago Public Schools of the schools application to open new schools, there was no clear explanation of the fact the the local school district would loose control of a school within the city limits. In fact Mrs. Nowaczewski made clear that in rejecting this charter that district 299 did not know what it was doing. She said, “CPS is wrong.”
Finally it was time for the audience to have their questions answered after sitting through a series of support speeches for the charter organization.
There was no detailed explanation of how a decision was made to locate a charter school at 2245 W. Pershing Rd. Audience members were told to write their questions in pieces of paper and they would be taken by Mr. Ucan to answer. This immediately started displeasure with the McKinley Park residents who stated this was their meeting and should be open for anyone to ask questions without writing then down. The first question read was about the fact that no environmental assessment was submitted to the zoning committee as part of the application to get this project approved through the committee.
Mr. Ucan started to talk about how his organization was committed to a safe school environment. Further he stated that in no terms would he as an educator himself send any child into a building that was unsafe. This reporter, John Kugler, held up an EPA Toxicology report and environmental assessment stating that the property was labeled as a toxic site.
There was yelling and an attempt to control the discussion, but residents did not allow Mr. Ucan to continue to state that the building was safe. When Mr. Ucan finally stated talking again another McKinley Park resident took to the front of the room stating that this was an undemocratic process. The speaker now was in front of the podium at which time police were deployed to take him away. The crowd booed and yelled their displeasure with this show of disrespect for democracy in a public forum. The gentleman was allowed to voice his concerns to which Alderman Cardenas stepped in and answered.
Then there was the topic of community of canvassing that Mr. Ucan was done door to door. To this there were shouts of "Liar!" and "Fraud!" from the audience. This is when I stood up and showed the audience the signature sheets purported to be from McKinley Park residents. The first sheet was signed by someone with an Indiana address. There was an uproar form the crowd. “Liar, fraud, you never been here!” were shouted at the podium.
At this point the Alderman and Mr. Ucan lost control of the room and discussion. Individuals started taking turns voicing their concerns and questions without waiting for the podium speakers to continue taking extra time to control the time of the meeting. Topics ranged from the lack of transparency to the union-busting record of this organization.
At this point Mr. Ucan tried to take control of the room with a narrative that all Concept Charter school employees were free to organize.
CTU Staff Coordinator Jackson Potter quickly took control of the room by stating that the truth must be told. That in fact Concept Charter Schools has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting unionization in their charter school. This started an all-out refutation by many from the crowd against the charter school speakers and their union busting policies. To take back control of the room, the Charter speakers brought up students who were bused in from the North side to give testimonials about how their lives had changed by attending the charter school. The crowd quieted down in respect of the students’ right to speak even as they were used to control the room.
After the students spoke, some employees of the charter school started to speak about the union busting allegations again. This again riled up the crowd. After going back and fort for a bit while longer everyone agreed that there were strong positions on both sides. The Mc Kinley Park residents understood that the meeting was to be closed since no more progress was to be made during this session. It was clear that Alderman Cárdenas had used the meeting to try to reaffirm his position with support from the charter school so there was no more need to go back and forth.
After the meeting there was a document that showed the loading of the crowd with charter supporters by Alderman Cardenas in a clear conflict of interest as the representative of the 12th Ward constituency.
The only other news coverage of the event was by reporter Mariano Gielis of Univision, which aired the report of the meeting as its headline story on the ten o’clock news. The lead was “Molestos y enfurecidos padres de esa comunidad por la poca transparencia en la decisión de construir una escuela.” The translated headline:
“Upset and angry parents of the community for the lack of transparency in the decision to build a school.” Link to news report is here: http://univisionchicago.univision.com/videos/video/2013-05-07/escuela-charter-mckinley-park