[republished] Did Chicago Board of Education give away the Byrd school building to a Catholic school for $1 a year?

[original publish date October 1, 2010] While the Illinois Facilities Task Force is trying to figure out how to make Chicago Public Schools more "transparent" in its facilities planning, less than two miles from the State of Illinois building where the Task Force holds many of its meetings is stark evidence that the Chicago Board of Education is not interested in telling the public how it's giving away school land and buildings. From the public record, the public would be led to believe that the Board was planning to use the old Richard Byrd Elementary School site and building for a new Jones College Prep High School. At least, that's one of the more logical conclusions from a "Board Report" (and agenda item on the agenda of the monthly meetings of the Chicago Board of Education) that the seven members of the school board voted unanimously and without discussion or debate to approve at the Board's February 2010 meeting.

Above, the remains of the Richard E. Byrd Elementary School is in the background at the construction site at 363 W. Hill St. in Chicago (one block south of Division St. west of Orleans). Since the Chicago Board of Education transferred the property to the City of Chicago in February 2010 (with the provision that the site be used for "school purposes") the site has been taken over by a construction project which is advertising that the building will house the "Immaculate Conception/St. Joseph School -- coming in fall 2011". No mention was made by the Chicago Board of Education that the plan was to give the land and building away to a parochial school. Substance photo taken September 30, 2010, by George N. Schmidt.But the Board has actually given away the Byrd building — and the land under it — in a complicated deal where the City of Chicago is acting as middleman in order to provide the St. Joseph - Immaculate Conception Catholic School with a new site and building.

On September 28, 2010, I presented the Facilities Task Force with a copy of a September 22 Board Report on the future of the "New Jones" high school. During my presentation, I traced the history of "Jones Commercial High School," which was destroyed by the Board of Education under Gery Chico and Paul Vallas, on orders from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, in 1998 and 1999. The Jones Commercial destruction was one of the first major "school closings" in Chicago, and it took place in 1998, six years before "Renaissance 2010" prompted massive protests against the ways in which CPS and the mayor have been manipulating schools under corporate "school reform." The closing of Jones Commercial deprive the students of Chicago with a half-century-old program that trained them for Loop commercial jobs and had been hailed internationally as a model. By 2001, Jones Commercial was a memory, and the new "Jones College Prep Magnet High School" was inside the old Jones building at 606 S. State St.

Trouble was, the Jones Commercial building had been built specifically for commercial training of 11th and 12th graders, and was never intended for use as a 9 - 12 regular high school. Among other things, it was not equipped with a gym or the extensive laboratories that a college prep program would require. But because the mayor ordered the building converted into a "College Prep" selective enrollment high school (at the same time he was buying a home in the nearby "Museum Campus" townhouse development to the East of Jones), the Board of Education was forced to embark on an enormously expensive program trying to bring a commercial building into life as a high school.

Over the years, the Board spent more than $200 million acquiring land and making renovations on Jones. At one point, the Board purchased the Burger King at Congress and State streets (southwest corner) for $1 million, then demolished it. But instead of utilizing the site for a Jones expansion, the Board deeded the site to the City of Chicago, which eventually transferred the site to the condo developers for the massive construction of private housing that now occupies the site between Congress and Harrison on the west side of State Street.

During the same time period, the Board of Education was trying to force out the century-old Pacific Garden Mission, whose homeless clients were being deemed unsuitable for the new Museum Campus and South Loop communities being pushed by the city. The eventual cost of acquiring the Pacific Garden Mission site (south of 606 S. State St.) ran into the tens of millions of dollars, including moving the Mission to Canal St. and demolishing.

Meanwhile, the Jones students still didn't have a gym.

In 2010, while Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman was telling a compliant corporate media that the Chicago schools were facing an unprecedented "deficit" that at one point he exaggerated to "One Billion Dollars!", the Board, on Huberman's motion, was continuing to give away school land and spend money where it was not needed. While CPS officials were telling the parents of Whittier Elementary School that they didn't have less than half a million dollars to renovate the school's field house for a library, the Board was planning to spend between $100 and $125 million (according to the public record) for the "New Jones." What little information is available in the public record shows that CPS transferred the title of the Byrd property at 363 W. Hill St. to the City of Chicago in February 2010, and that in September 2010 CPS approved the creation of the "New Jones" (without specifying the location).

As usual, CPS officials have refused to answer specific questions about the planning involving the Byrd site, Jones, and related matters pertaining to facilities. Monique Bond, CPS Communications Chief, refuses to return phone calls from Substance or answer questions from Substance. On September 17, she spent more than an hour turning her back on this reporter while talking with other reporters at the Whittier site. During a time when the Huberman administration was claiming to be more "transparent," CPS officials were making it more difficult for citizens to get information under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).