Tumuluous hearing pits UNO charter school vs. public schools in Chicago's Mexican American community
The battle between charter and public schools broke out in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago Friday night (August 21, 2009) at a public hearing to hear community input on whether to place the UNO Octavio Paz charter school inside the former De La Cruz public school that was closed, supposedly due to low enrollment, in June 2009.
While the hearing was packed with an overflowing crowd of many Hispanic parents and their children who support a new location for the Octavio Paz charter school, many speakers were passionate in their opposition to the Chicago Public Schools last-minute decision to place the politically powerful UNO charter school into an award-winning public school that had just been destroyed by CPS policy.
The Chicago Board of Education will decide at the next scheduled public meeting August 26 whether the United Neighborhood Organization UNO charter cchool Octavio Paz campus should be located for one year at De La Cruz because the St. Roman facility is too dangerous and repairs are estimated at over $1 million and could not be completed by the start of the school year, according to UNO.
“It’s just not fair for the children if they don’t get a new school,” Juan Rangel, the director of UNO, said in Spanish to the roar of approval from the parents. “We have invested over $60,000 in electrical and dining upgrades, so if anyone thinks we would just leave, they’re wrong. This will be for just one year and then we will build a new school.”
But many speakers then spoke out in opposition to the plan, taking aim at CPS and its alleged pattern of lies and deceit about the reason to close De La Cruz and what UNO’s real intentions are.
“We had a saying at De La Cruz ‘To Live with Dignity’ but UNO does not live with dignity,” said Kristine Mayle, a former teacher at De La Cruz and member of CORE who spoke out against the plan. “We were an award-winning school and then UNO started pulling kids away from our school and our numbers dropped.”
Several speakers said UNO is not being truthful about money problems noting that they had just received over $100 million from the state in stimulus money to open more charter schools. After the first few speakers spoke in favor of the need to house La Paz temporarily at De La Cruz to thunderous applause, more speakers, many from the Pilsen Alliance and CORE — a caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union, denounced the decision, saying what CPS is doing is deceptive and illegal.
“The Board never even publicized this meeting, which is illegal,” said Norine Gutenkanst, a teacher at Whittier Elementary School and member of CORE.
According to CPS, Octavio Paz’s enrollment will be capped at 480 students at the new location. In addition to UNO officials, parents, teachers and other community members, CPS representatives included Josh Edelman and Jaime Guzman, two top officials in the Office of New Schools.
“This is a classic case of bait and switch,” Nate Goldbaum, another Whittier teacher and CORE member told the audience. “CPS told the community that De La Cruz would not be turned into a charter school.”
According to CPS, the De La Cruz school was phased out due to extensive capital improvements needed for the building. “The Board had no intention of leasing this facility to a charter school and early plans for the De La Cruz included demolishing the facility and selling the property,” stated a letter signed by CPS Board President Michael Scott. “Due to this emergency situation, though, the CPS has reevaluated its plans for the De La Cruz facility since it could temporarily provide a safe learning environment for the students at the Octavio Paz campus for one year.”
However, opposition speakers noted that CPS started to make repairs on the De La Cruz school building as it was closing, installing new windows and replacing a leaky roof, despite comments to the contrary.
CPS claims it will still sell the building while UNO will finance some building repairs.
Other criticisms of the move included a parent saying it will be more dangerous for the children to have to cross busy streets to go to the new location and another teacher demanding a second opinion about the structural foundation of the Church because if it’s so dangerous, why are church services still being held in the building. Just before Whittier teacher Gutenkanst started to speak, about 100 Octavio Paz parents and children stood up and left the room following their leader Rangel who seemed to sense the rest of the speakers were fiercely against moving his charter school into the former public school building.