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On school closings, West Siders offer alternatives

West Side parents and educators have called for a boycott of CPS’s school closing hearing Saturday morning and will hold an alternative community meeting instead (April 6, May Community Academy, 512 S. Lavergne, starting with a press conference at 10 a.m.) where they’ll present a community school plan.

Perhaps Mayor Emanuel ought to go.

He’s the one who recently said, “What I won’t accept is when people are asked, what’s your alternative, what’s your idea, and there’s silence.”

In fact several communities have developed their own plans, including strategic visions developed by six Community Actions Councils sponsored by CPS to improve communications with its stakeholders.

“They all fall on deaf ears,” said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition.  “The mayor has said his decision is final, and he doesn’t care what people have to say about it.”

“It’s a waste of time to go to the CPS hearing,” said Dwayne Truss of the Save Our Neighborhood Schools coalition.  “Nobody that can make any decisions is going to be there.  It’s a dog-and-pony show.”

As for CPS staff, he said, “They’re sticking to their talking points.”

CPS has proposed closing four schools in  Austin, impacting 2,000 students, according to Austin Talks. Saturday’s official hearing is for Louis Armstrong Elementary.

Reducing truancy

SONS will present an alternative plan that will minimize school closings and save CPS money, Truss said.

The plan is based on the strategic educational plan developed by the Austin CAC, which Truss co-chaired with Ald. Deborah Graham (29th).  The council included 25 elected officials, LSC members, religious and community leaders, and city agencies.

That plan focused on solutions to problems like high truancy rates and a lack of all-day early education programs, and proposed developing a range of curricular choices for Austin students, including an IB network running from elementary through high school.

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Black history, from quilts to opera

A West Side McDonalds will be transformed into a quilting bee, and the South Side Cultural Center will be transformed into a 1963 civil rights rally, in two cultural events exploring black history this weekend.

The North Lawndale African American Heritage Quilting Project is holding a “drive-thru quilting day” in the conference room of the McDonalds at Roosevelt and Kedzie on Saturday, February 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Customers will be invited to create a patch for the project’s second quilt, depicting anything they find meaningful including poems or Scripture, traditional African patterns, or depictions of family traditions or neighborhood landmarks or heroes.  People who bring photos or pictures can have them copied and transferred onto a patch.

The project reflects local activist Valerie Leonard’s passion for involving  people in participatory projects and a desire to build community pride.

The group has held quilting sessions at neighborhood churches and senior centers and is working on involving local schools, with students researching and designing patches with historical themes.

At a local church last week, “we had all ages, 3 to 80,” she says.  It’s not just women, either.  “It’s amazing, some of the young guys that do try it, they really get into it,” Leonard said.

On Sunday at 4 p.m., the South Shore Opera Company is presenting “The March,” an opera in development by composer Jonathan Stinson and librettist Alan Marshall exploring events surrounding the 1963 March on Washington.

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Lawbreaking bank calls the cops

A Lawndale activist who was arrested Tuesday while calling on Bank of America to follow the law – and fix code violations in foreclosed properties – has posted her comments at Action Now’s blog.

“I was in shock,” says Marsha Godard, 52, a mother and a Bank of America account holder.  “How can my own bank arrest me for trying to speak to them about vacant properties that are in my neighborhood and all over the city of Chicago?

“Bank of America is not only ruining the lives of homeowners, the safety of communities and America’s economy, they are now arresting people like me that question their destructive actions.”

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Hearings on school closings

For coverage of community and downtown hearings on Renaissance 2010 school closings, there’s really only Substance — since, as Substance reports, the Trib and Sun Times haven’t reported on hearings where 2,500 people have come out.

The paper posts daily on the web and is now posting video from the hearings on youtube.  Check out Debra Thompson, LSC chair at Paderewski, 2221 S. Lawndale:

One new trend: unlike last year, members of City Council are coming out to oppose closings.  Freddrenna Lyle of the 6th Ward has spoken out against “turnarounds” at Gillespie (9301 S. State) and Deneen (7420 S. Wabash), Pat Dowell of the 3rd against the “consolidation” of Mollison (4415 S. King), and Scott Waguespack of the 32nd  against closing Prescott (1632 W. Wrightwood).

Perhaps most notably, 17th Ward Ald. Latasha Thomas, who chairs the council’s education committee, has opposed the closing of Guggenheim (7141 S. Morgan), not only challenging the convoluted (and sometimes absurd) “performance” ratings used to justify the closings, but questioning the entire school closing strategy:  “When you close a school you penalize the students.  When you close a school you penalize the very people you are working for.”

There have been repeated challenges to the bizarre “performance policy” data (which turns out to be inaccurate in many cases) and repeated charges that schools have been denied resources.

And there is repeated evidence that CPS is flying blind when it comes to facilities planning.  Mollison lost its reading specialist based on a projected decline in enrollment that never actually occurred (the position was not restored); Prescott is being closed for underenrollment even though it’s attracting young families that are now moving into its attendance area; Paderewski lost enrollment after CPS reduced the school’s attendance boundaries.

In several cases, students will face long treks – and pass several nearby schools – in order to keep Ron Huberman’s promise to send them to schools with higher scores.  Latasha Thomas says:  “Seven or eight blocks means some students will drop out.”

Here’s what Debra Thompson says in the video above:  “You expect my kids to walk through drug-infested neighborhoods — for 12 blocks – to get to school?  That’s unreal.”   She asks: “What right do you have…to make decisions for our children and our community?”

Lawndale: Stories of struggle and hope

Historian Beryl Satter speaks Monday evening at Mt. Sinai Hospital in North Lawndale, the neighborhood where much of the action occurs in her widely acclaimed book, Family Properties, which was released last year.

The book grew out of the author’s curiosity about her father, Mark J. Satter, born and raised in then-Jewish Lawndale.  A scrappy left-wing lawyer, Mark Satter crusaded in and out of court against the extremely exploitative system of contract buying (enabled by the FHA’s refusal to insure mortgages in black areas), featuring crushing terms that forced African American homebuyers into debt peonage, a system that inevitably engendered slum conditions.  After Mark Satter’s premature death in 1965, the book follows the story as Martin Luther King moves into the neighborhood the next year to organize against housing discrimination and slums, and a couple years later as the Contract Buyers League, spurred by Monsignor John Egan and led by Lawndale residents like Ruth Wells, initiated a major organizing campaign including two federal lawsuits.

A couple themes of historic continuity emerged in Beryl Satter’s talk with Andrew Patner on WFMT last year (mp3). One is the  long history and crushing impact of systematic denial of credit to African Americans, stretching from southern sharecropping to northern redlining and, today, to predatory lending and a foreclosure crisis which has hit Lawndale hard.

The other is the way well-fought but unsuccessful campaigns build on each other and create momentum. Mark Satter faced repeated frustration, King’s campaign was deemed a failure, the Contract Buyers League lawsuits were unsuccessful – but all contributed to two signal victories against housing and credit discrimination, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, won under the leadership of yet another scrappy West Sider, Gale Cincotta.

Beryl Satter will discuss her book in Mt. Sinai’s Glasser Auditorium (1500 S. California) at 5 p.m., Monday, February 8; a reception follows at 6:30.

Lawndale Christian Development Corp. has said that Mark Satter’s story will be honored in the Martin Luther King Exhibit Center that is being built as part of the Dr. King Legacy Apartments, affordable housing now under construction on the site of the two-flat where King lived during his Chicago campaign.

TIF turf

At a community meeting on TIF accountability last week (see last week’s Newstip)  — part of a citywide educational effort to build a movement for TIF reform — Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance gave lessons learned in her group’s work on the Lawndale TIF.  (Leonard’s powerpoint is posted at her blog Staying In The Loop; see also the March 28 Newstip on the Lawndale TIF.)

 Leonard covered basics like the approval process, relevant laws and ordinances, residents’ rights and legal standing, and ethical issues.  And she suggested activists be prepared for possible consequences.

These include positive consequences, like engaging the community, and negative consequences:  “attempts to discredit groups and their messages…; leaders are often isolated and labeled as troublemakers; exclusion from key meetings by community ‘gatekeepers’; key stakeholders begin to distance themselves; retaliation.”

Lawndale TIF cuts housing list

With City Council passage of the Ogden/Pulaski TIF last week, Lawndale activists claimed a small victory in the dramatic reduction of housing units slated for displacement — originally listed as 317 units but reduced to 13 in the final ordinance.

 But aldermen were backing off of promises for a TIF advisory council, said Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance (see last month’s Newstip).  “I don’t think we’re going to have any heightened accountability” for this TIF, she said.

 Meanwhile the first development proposal in the TIF district is set to go before the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday (pdf).

 An unnamed applicant is requesting a zoning change for a residential planned development at 4315 W. 18th Place.  “The aldermen told us with a straight face in February that there were no projects planned at that time,” Leonard said.

Help for Lawndale ‘TIF Dwellers’

The Lawndale Alliance is holding a workshop for “TIF Dwellers” with public, private and nonprofit experts offering information and resources on property tax relief, home repairs and providing equipment like drills etc, mortgage foreclosure prevention, Saturday, March 29, 9:30 a.m. at the Westside Association for Community Action, 3600 W. Ogden.

It’s the kind of help the Alliance hopes the proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF will provide for existing residents of the area — though they’ve received no indication that it will do so.

The Alliance has protested the exclusion of residents from TIF planning and plans to bring their concerns to the City Council’s Finance Committee, which will consider the TIF on April 14.

Proposed by several nonprofit development groups, the TIF is backed by Ald. Sharon Dixon of the 24th ward, where three-fourths of the TIF is located, and by Ald. Rick Munoz of the 22nd Ward.   The proposed TIF runs from Roosevelt to 24th Street and from Kostner to Albany.

The Lawndale Alliance isn’t opposing the $100 million TIF, said Valerie Leonard. It merely wants protections to ensure that taxpayers living in the the area — whose increased property taxes will help fund the TIF — will benefit from it.

First the group wants errors corrected on the proposed lists of properties to be acquired.

When the city released updated lists in October, it gave only PIN numbers, not addresses — and when Joe Ann Bradley of the Alliance checked the numbers out she found a number of discrepancies between numbers and addresses.  In addition, a number of properties listed as potentially displaced due to disrepair have actually undergone extensive renovation — some to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars — within recent years, Leonard said.

Lawndale Alliance advocates the removal of all properties from the TIF’s list of housing potentially displaced.  Leonard points out that the proposed $10 million budget for property acquisition wasn’t reduced even after the number of lots and buildings to be acquired was cut dramatically — from 1600 vacant lots to 652, and from 135 buildings potentially displaced to 26 properties with 41 units of housing.  She wants a portion of those funds set aside to assist homeowners whose homes are listed for displacement.  “Many are very low income seniors,” Leonard said.

The city’s alternative is a Neighborhood Improvement Program, but such grants are parcelled out in small groups and chosen by lottery, Leonard said.

The Alliance has called for removing provisions for eminent domain from the ordinance establishing the TIF and replacing them with voluntary property acquisition.  They point to the recent Lincoln Square TIF as a model.  According to Les Knistern of the Greater Rockwell Organization, Ald. Gene Schulter agreed to put properties that would have been subject to eminent domain on a voluntary acquisition list after protests from residents.

The Alliance has called for a TIF Advisory Council, and Ald. Dixon reportedly promised to establish one last year, collected applications, then put off naming a council until the TIF is approved.   The group wants a negotiated Community Benefits Agreement for the TIF and “systems of accountability” on issues like job creation and business development for local residents.

They’ve written an open letter containing their proposals to the two aldermen and received no response, Leonard said.  And a myriad of resident concerns raised at public meetings have not been addressed.

“There’s just been terrible communication,” she said.  “We’re just asking for an open dialogue.”

She believes support is growing for reform of TIF regulations on the state level.

Leonard said Lawndale Alliance will continue with advocacy, education, and resource linkages to help residents “maintain ownership of their homes.”  As a next step, the group is planning a forum on homeowner’s rights and eminent domain with a former city lawyer, she said.

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