Concept Charter School roundly rejected by Bowmanville residents in overflowing March 21 meeting
Approximately 90 people turned out for a raucus Bowmanville Community Organization monthly meeting on March 21, 2013, a meeting that is ordinarily attended by a handful of local residents. The heightened interest was a direct result of the last-minute proposed Concepts Charter School application that would place a school in an empty fluorescent bulb factory at the corners Hoyne and Balmoral Avenue across from the Balmoral Nursing Home in September 2013.
The application for the Charter School, initially rejected by CPS, was given the green light by the Illinois legislature in a late night move earlier in the week that overrode the CPS denial. Residents of Bowmanville were given no notice of the proposed zoning change, and only became aware of the zoning discussion being on the BCO monthly agenda due in part to www.substancenews.net, the CTU, and the Raise Your Hand coalition spreading the word. Bowmanville is a Chicago neighborhood with rough boundaries of Western Avenue, Foster, Peterson and Ravenswood Avenues. The two real general public high schools that serve most Bowmanville residents are Amundsen and Mather.
Because the BCO monthly meeting is held at the North Community Bank at 5300 Western, only 50 people were allowed into the small branch due to fire code restrictions. Bowmanville residents were given priority to attend the meeting. 40 people remained outside the bank chanting their opposition to the Concept Charter School.
BCO President Claire Shingler began the evening explaining that the BCO monthly meeting was not a Town Hall meeting related to the proposed zoning change, but rather, a late addition to the monthly BCO agenda which more typically involves discussion of garden walks and ice cream socials.
Jeff Graves, a member of the BCO Board of Directors and the head of the BCO Planning Committee, reiterated that the Concept Charter School had not officially requested a zoning change, but was in the process of doing so.
Salim Ucan, VP for Concepts Charter Schools, made a twenty minute PowerPoint presentation in which he extolled the virtues of the Ohio-based Concepts Charter Schools, 27 of which are in the Midwest. Mr Ucan was short on specifics as to the success of his other charter schools, but ended his speech by the familiar line, “We have thousands of children on waiting lists for our schools.”
When it came time for the question and answer period, the audience fired off question after question that Mr. Ucan and his colleagues seemed unable or unwilling to answer. One local resident noted that she had not been informed of a zoning change request as per legal requirements. Sarah Barnes, a lawyer for Concept Charters insisted the zoning notices had been mailed out to residents the previous Monday, and she was perplexed by the fact that no one had received such a notice. She insisted Concept Charters was not trying to “pull a fast one on residents.”
One Bowmanville resident asked why CPS had rejected the Concept charter application. Mr. Ucan said he couldn’t list all of the reasons, as he didn’t remember them, but “most of the reasons were technical. “ When pressed to detail five of the issues, Mr. Ucan said he’d have to get back to the BCO on that.
Another resident noted that Mr. Ucan knew Barbara Byrd Bennett personally. He denied that he did not know her. The resident persisted, noting that he and Ms. Byrd Bennett had been on a committee of four that created a charter school in Cleveland. Mr. Ucan insisted he had no relationship with Ms. Bennett and added that the Concept Charter School being rejected by CPS proved he had no relationship with her. Another audience member retorted, “it appears you do know her, and it must be a bad relationship.”
Others questioned how Concepts Charter could possibly buy the fluorescent bulb factory in March, hire teachers and staff, accept students and be ready for the Fall of 2013. Mr. Ucan had no answer, but insisted that it could be accomplished.
Still others in the audience noted that Charter Concepts had previously been rebuffed by the Belmont-Cragin community. Mr. Ucan explained that that was why he was willing to switch to the Duray Fluorescent bulb factory as an alternative site.
Mr. Ucan further noted that the bulb factory was in the process of being purchased, but the sale was contingent upon the zoning change. He explained that Entertainment Properties Management, a company that is most well known for ownership of movie theaters, was the intended buyer. Entertainment Properties Management would then lease the property back to the charter school. After 5 years, the charter school would have the option to buy back the property. Public bonds would be used for renovation.
Others questioned Charter Concepts connection to the Gulan movement, a Turkish organization that some have called a cult. Mr. Ucan noted that while a number of his teachers were brought in from Turkey, no religion is taught in the school and his teachers are of many different religious faiths.
After Mr. Ucan, Chris Hill (the property advisor to the project) and Ms. Barnes exited, the community continued to ask incisive questions in search of clarity. Ms. Shingler then read a statement from Alderman Pat O’Connor (who did not attend but had a staff member present) indicating that neither he nor Mayor Emmanuel was in favor of the Concept Charter application.
Members applauded this but insisted they would remain vigilant to further political maneuverings. LSC members from both Amundsen High School and Chappell Elementary, nearby schools who would be negatively impacted by the Concept Charter schools spoke passionately about their schools. Still mystified that the Concept Charter school proposition had seemingly come out of nowhere, a resident who lives within 250 of the proposed school summed up the bizarre events that led to the Charter school even being considered, summed up the evening by noting, “If I’d wanted to live with this level of corruption, I’d have stayed in my native Argentina.”
My prepared remarks that I did not give as well as my top ten reasons to reject the charter school (see below):
My name is Jay Rehak, I am a 20 year resident of Bowmanville. I am a parent, a teacher, and a homeowner. I’m also a former member of the BCO Board. I am here today to speak against rezoning the Duray Fluorescent bulb factory and allowing the Ohio based Concepts Charter School to move into that space and operate a school.
I am providing this board a written copy of the top ten reasons why I am against this charter school disrupting our neighborhood. Chief among those reasons is the instability such a school would create to the neighboring schools, as well as the subsequent blight on the neighborhood of shuttering any of the surrounding schools. I’m alarmed that this charter school application was previously rejected by CPS and somehow fast tracked by the Illinois Legislature. The idea that a school could be inserted into a fluorescent bulb factory in six months is offensive on its face. Schools, I hope this community realizes, are not entities to be “slapped together.” Schools take planning. Teachers and staff need training. Throwing together a school, no matter how well intended, is a recipe for chaos.
There’s much more I could say, but I will leave you with my top ten list and a number of questions I hope you will get answered tonight by the people of Concepts Charter schools.
Jay Top Ten Reasons Why Bowmanville Should Reject the Concepts Charter School in our neighborhood.
1) We currently have Chappell, Trumbull, Amundsen, St. Phillips, and Rogers Park Montessori within walking distance.
2) Trumbull has been targeted for “underutilization” by CPS. Students and parents at that school will have their lives disrupted as a consequence of this.
3) Closing schools is disruptive to the learning environment and the community. If Trumbull is underutilized, why are we building another school?
4) Abandoned schools are a blight on the community. 5) If Amundsen remains open, the possibility of “gang” issues invading the neighborhood is very real.
6) CPS rejected an application from Concepts Charter School to expand. 7) Not all of the teachers of the Concepts Charter School are certified or will be certified.
8) The Ohio based “non-profit” organization that runs Concepts Charter Schools has not revealed the salary structures of its owners, but the teachers in their schools are paid less than traditional public school teachers. leading to less disposable income available for local businesses. 9) The Nursing Home across the street makes the location of the school inappropriate.
10) Traffic issues that ensue as students are bussed in to fill this charter
Questions that need to be answered before this project should even be considered:
Who owns Duray Fluorescent and how safe is it to create a school in a factory that once built fluorescent bulbs?
Who is the real estate developer involved in the attempt to make this a charter school?
Why is the being fast tracked after CPS rejected the Concepts Charter expansion efforts?
Has Concept Charter Schools already purchased the Duray Fluorescent site? At what cost? Has a traffic study been done?
How can the neighborhood include both underutilized schools at the same time another school is being proposed?
Will Concepts Charter School be accepting Special Education students?