As closed schools go up for sale, transparency issues persist

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Photo by Grace Donnelly

Arna W. Bontemps Elementary School in West Englewood is one of 28 closed schools recently put up for sale by Chicago Public Schools after the district discarded a plan to involve community members in determining their reuse.

After Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttered 50 schools four years ago, one of the biggest complaints from communities was that the process to determine the schools’ reuse lacked transparency.

Chicago Public Schools never posted detailed information about the buildings. Aldermen were responsible for the reuse process, but several never held meetings about the future of the schools in their wards, according to a Reporter investigation into the closures, the most at one time of any district in the country. And two-thirds of the buildings are still vacant.

Two weeks ago, CPS announced that it would take over a failing repurposing process from aldermen and put the schools up for bid without public input. But last week at the first district meeting with potential buyers since the announcement, the same concerns about transparency resurfaced. Both a district employee and a real estate broker admitted the district’s repurposing website is out-of-date and lacks necessary information about the schools up for sale.

The meeting was to inform potential buyers about the schools before the March 13 deadline to submit offers. Thirty-eight people attended, most of whom represented local developers, real-estate groups and a handful of private schools and churches.

Most of the schools had never officially been on the market. Some residents said the cash-strapped district was looking to quickly generate revenue from the sale of schools at the expense of involving communities in that process.

So far, interest has been high for the sole North Side school, a Bronzeville school, a West Englewood school near a new Whole Foods Market and two West Side schools near downtown. The majority of the vacant schools are located on the South and West sides in low-income African-American neighborhoods, where communities could most benefit from the reuse of the buildings.

Several people at the meeting asked about where they could find more information about the closed schools. A CPS procurement employee, Patricia Hernandez, directed them to the district’s repurposing website—where each school has a two-page document of basic information—but acknowledged it dated back to when the reuse process began years ago. More current information, she said, had to be requested from the district’s real-estate broker.

“None of the good stuff that you’re looking for is on [the website] yet,” said Mike Nardini, a first vice president for CBRE, the real-estate company that’s helping CPS sell its schools.

Nardini provided The Chicago Reporter with a sample of information potential buyers could request, including a facility assessment and an asbestos inspection. (The district posts both publicly for open schools.) The packet also contained detailed floor plans and land surveys.

The Reporter also found in its investigation that other school districts prioritized keeping residents and potential buyers in the know by making it easy to find all sorts of information about empty schools.

Kansas City Public Schools, which ran a repurposing initiative that’s considered a national model, updated its reuse website frequently, with detailed facility and site assessments, floor plans, environmental inspection reports, interior photos, meeting dates, community feedback, reuse ideas and proposals from potential buyers.

It is unlikely Chicago residents will have much of a say in the future of the majority of schools that are up for bid because public meetings are no longer required. Residents put restrictions on only eight of 28 schools up for sale.

This story is part of a series that examines the impact, four years later, of closing 50 Chicago public schools. Sign up to receive new installments in your inbox.