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Are school closings racist?

Some people think so.

At the most basic level, there’s the fact that decisions about African American communities are being made without their consent.

Of 54 school closings proposed by CPS, 51 are in low-income African American areas; 90 percent of students being impacted are black.

“If you look at the people making the decisions and the communities they’re talking about, you have white males saying they know what’s best for African American students,” said Austin schools activist Dwayne Truss.

“Barbara Byrd-Bennett is not calling the shots,” he said.  “Mayor Emanuel and David Vitale and Tim Cawley are calling the shots.  She’s just an expert in closing schools who they brought in to do that.  She’s just the messenger.”

Comments Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition, “She’s put in place to implement these policies so they can hide behind her.”

Byrd-Bennett “would not have been hired if she was not on board with [Emanuel’s school closing agenda] — and with the priority of providing opportunities for private educational interests to make money bringing in mediocre interventions for black children,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.

Three high schools

For Brown, it’s about the school system’s priorities — and that’s a civil rights and human rights issue.

“The priority has been to disinvest from minority communities and invest in failed programs, invest in charter schools and contract schools,” he said. “The priority has been that minority children don’t have the same quality of education.

“Example: Look at North Side College Prep, they have 22 AP classes.  Lakeview High, with about 18 or 20 percent African American students, a few blocks from the mayor’s house, they have 12 AP classes.  Dyett High School, 99 percent African American and 95 percent low-income, no AP classes.

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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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Tenants to send bedbugs to bank

Tenants will have jars full of bedbugs — to deliver to the bank that owns their foreclosed apartment building — at a protest at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 28 at 5159 W. West End.

A new receiver for the building was appointed after tenants demanding basic maintenance declared a rent strike April 11, but tenants haven’t seen any improvements, said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition.

Tenants are demanding that Peak Properties, the building receiver, and BMO/Harris bank, which foreclosed on the 32-unit building a year ago, agree to a public meeting to discuss maintenance issues.

“If Peak Properties and BMO/Harris Bank refuse to meet with us, we will take our bedbugs to their offices and homes,” said tenant leader Pamela Johnson in a release.

“Our building is infested with rats and bedbugs, our children are being bitten,”Johnson said.  “Our human rights and dignity are assaulted on a daily basis.”

Building problems include chipped paint, ceiling leaks, broken toilets, and holes in the floor, according to SAC.

Occupying foreclosures

Abandoned homes being occupied in Belmont Cragin and Auburn Gresham on Tuesday – part of a national day of action called by Occupy Our Homes – underscore the failure of banks to deal with the foreclosure crisis.

In Belmont Cragin, Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction are moving two homeless sisters and their children into a single family home that was abandoned sometime after foreclosure was filed in 2009.  The group couldn’t determine whether a final disposition has been made on the property.

They think it could be one of the thousands of “red flag” properties, where banks and loan servicers “may choose to reduce the costs associated with a long-term vacant home by walking away from the foreclosure process instead of completing it” in order to evade the costs and legal reponsibilities of ownership, according to a Woodstock Institute report (see earlier post).

In Auburn-Gresham, kicking off its “Homes for the Holidays” drive, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign is moving a family which lost its home to foreclosure into a home that was abandoned by a longtime resident after JP Morgan Chase refused to consider a loan modification.  The owner gave the keys to AEC, which like CAUFE has done signficant repairs on the building.

Foreclosures have continued to climb over the past two years, since the Obama administration promised to help millions of troubled homeowners.  But because their program allowed for voluntary participation by banks – instead of requiring institutions that had been bailed out to give affordable modifications to qualifying homeowners – it has helped only a small portion of those initially targeted.

Meanwhile lenders widely noted for being unresponsive to homeowners have now acknowledged extensive fraud in foreclosure filings.

In Austin, South Austin Coalition is taking over and boarding up an abandoned building that’s hosted extensive criminal activity less than a block from May Elementary School.  The building was foreclosed on by Citibank, said Elce Redmond of SAC.

“We’re going to go after the bank to pay for the boardup,” Redmond said.  “Longterm we want to pressure the banks to turn these homes over to community organizations and churches so we can rehab them and put families in them.”

“We have so many unemployed people and so many vacant properties,” said Willie JR Fleming of AEC.  “It’s obvious we need to put people to work rehabbing them so we can put families back in them.”

Fleming emphasizes that “we are enforcing the human right to housing.  We are not asking for human rights.  We are enforcing them.”

Occupy Our Homes reports similar actions “to stop and reverse foreclosures” in 25 cities on Tuesday, as “the Occupy movement joins with homeowners and people fighting for a place to live.”

Occupy Austin, Occupy Bronzeville

Occupy Austin and Occupy Bronzeville, joined by people from Occupy Chicago, will begin a new drive to occupy foreclosures at actions on the West and South Sides tomorrow.

They’ll rally with tenants of a foreclosed building who are resisting what they say are illegal attempts to evict them from a 12-unit rental building, just two weeks after foreclosure.

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Peacemaking: From West Bank to West Side

When he was on the West Bank with a Christian Peacemaker Team in 2005, Chicago organizer Elce Redmond realized the problems people faced there were similar to those faced by people back home – and solutions might be similar too.

Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition, will give the opening keynote for CPT’s 25th anniversary Peacemaker Congress, Thursday, October 13 at 8 p.m. at Evanston Reba Place Church, 533 Custer.  The congress runs through Sunday the 16th.

In 2005, Redmond’s team was providing “peaceful accompaniment” for Palestinian schoolchildren who faced bullying and attacks by adults (“they were mostly from New York,” he says) living in Israeli settlements there.  “I was struck that the same situation happens on the West Side of Chicago, kids trying to get home from school and facing gangs and violence.”

Back home, Redmond began organizing the Austin Peaceforce, with parents and community volunteers trained in nonviolent strategies who are deployed to defuse conflicts and prevent violence.  Today they have a regular presence in Austin schools, including parent patrols after school.

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Communities to banks: You can fix housing crisis, economy

Banks caused the housing crisis — and the financial crash which threw millions out of their jobs — and they can fix it, according to a new report.

By writing down underwater mortgages to market value – using a relatively small portion of bailout financing they’ve received – banks could put a floor on the housing market, stem spiraling foreclosures, and provide the economy with a badly-needed second stimulus, creating millions of jobs over the next decade, the New Bottom Line Campaign argues in a new analysis.

It was released in Chicago last week at a vacant home on the West Side that’s being rehabbed under a new program — which demonstrates how community pressure can force banks to step up and take responsibility, organizers say.

(And it came out the same day Mayor Rahm  Emanuel announced a foreclosure recovery program that includes not one single community on the hard-hit West Side.)

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On TIF reform, Bronzeville has ideas

Bronzeville residents turned out in impressive numbers for last Thursday’s public forum of the Mayor’s Task Force on TIF Reform, which was held at the Bronzeville Chicago Military Academy.

Other communities were represented, but more forums in additional communities would certainly offer the task force greater breadth of public input.  But last week’s was the only hearing that is planned.

Bronzeville is one of the city’s most heavily TIFed communities, with thirteen TIF districts covering 80 percent of the area, many created to finance CHA redevelopments – with more in the works had Mayor Daley won the 2016 Olympic games, according to Housing Bronzeville.

Sheila Carter testified on behalf of the group that TIFs have “failed local taxpayers” in their lack of transparency and accountability.  It’s been “virtuallly impossible for local residents to understand how TIF monies were being raised and spent in our area,” she said, suggesting “this confusion and lack of documentation was intentional.”

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