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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

What Should Chicago Do With All Those Empty School Buildings?

The city now has a lot of big, vacant schools. To figure out what to do with them, Rahm just appointed a committee, and a plugged-in guy to chair it.

The entrance of Near North Elementary, 739 N Ada St in West Town. Opened 1884, closed 2013. The oldest building on the closings list, Near North served entirely special education students. Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

I spend a fair amount of time wandering around Brooklyn. I almost never have a car; I walk, and I’ve noticed so many schools converted to condos. They’re lovely to look at with their oak, arched doors, tall school windows, and landscaped front yards. The price for a small apartment in one of these repurposed buildings would buy a spacious single family house in Chicago.

In the wake of Mayor Emanuel’s announcement yesterday that he has appointed an advisory committee— Advisory Committee for School Repurposing and Community Development—to figure out what to do with the 50 closed school buildings, I’ve read and heard scores of anti-Rahm comments. Many come from people who, working under the assumption that the Mayor is deliberately trying to weaken or even destroy the public schools system here, imagine six or seven-figure condos sprouting up in buildings that served communities not only as schools but as safe havens, meeting places, community resources. But given that most of the closed schools are in tough South and West Side neighborhoods, those critics are probably unduly suspicious. (Had there not been a reprieve for George Manierre Elementary School on North Hudson in Old Town close by the now felled Cabrini Green—and by the Gold Coast—Rahm-haters might have had cause to worry.)

A more realistic worry is the possibility that these buildings could eventually house charter schools. Yes, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has promised that closed buildings will not be offered to charter operators. But the chairman of the new committee, Wilbur Milhouse, obviously didn’t know that, because he told Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman and Lauren Fitzpatrick, “I can’t say that, if that community says they want to make it a charter school that we would say no. That hasn’t been given to me as a parameter to stop any community from turning it into a charter school.” The Sun-Times reporters also note that one member of Emanuel’s committee “is a board member of the Erie Elementary Charter School.”

The committee, its 13 members unpaid, is charged with making “recommendations on the planning and process for repurposing closed school facilities.” The Mayor’s press release states that the committee’s “goal” is to “reengage the facilities as vital and vibrant community assets” and that its recommendations will “focus … on improving the economic vitality and quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods.”

Those sentences are open to interpretation: “Assets?” “Economic vitality?” Who knows what that will mean in the long run.

Among the committee members are two aldermen (Rey Colon and Latasha Thomas), a city department commissioner, foundation people, social services people, a retired community development activist, a retired Marine colonel who now works at CPS and is helping with the safe passage of students to new schools.

Chairman Milhouse is founder, president and CEO of Milhouse Engineering & Construction, Inc., which the Sun-Times calls “one of Chicago’s largest African-American construction firms.” It’s described on its website as “a full–service architectural and engineering firm … that specializes in 11 specific markets,” one of which is “education,” another aviation (“the 9-27C and 10-28C runway designs at O’Hare… the mechanical design for Buckingham Fountain.” The firm’s “wildly important goal,” Milhouse writes, “is to become the largest engineering firm in the Chicagoland area.” (Milhouse has his BS and MS from the University of Illinois at Urbana and is a civil and structural engineer.)

I’d never heard of him, but a Nexis search found that he has social chops (appears in the now terminated “Stella’s Column” in the Sun-Times. He and his wife Dawn own a restaurant on West Grand Avenue called M. Vie which specializes in southern comfort food. He has a close relationship with City Clerk Dorothy Brown, to whose campaigns he has donated $5,000 in 2012. He and Brown sponsor the annual Milhouse Engineering Incentive Computer Scholarship, which awards three students whose parents or grandparents work in the Clerk’s office with Dell laptop computers and $1000 scholarships.

A page on Milhouse’s website shows that among his firm’s clients:

  • Under “education” is Chicago Public Schools, Chicago State University, City Colleges of Chicago, not to mention the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • Under “aviation is Chicago Department of Aviation, O’Hare International Airport, Midway International Airport, Gary-Chicago International Airport.
  • Under “construction” is Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.
  • Under “energy” is the City of Chicago, ComEd, Nicor Gas.
  • Under “environmental” is the Chicago Park District.
  • Under “program management” is Public Building Commission Chicago, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.
  • Under “site civil” is Chicago Park District, City of Chicago, Illinois Sports Facility Authority (U.S. Cellular Field).
  • Under “transportation” is Chicago Department of Transportation, Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.
  • Under “water/wastewater” is City of Chicago Department of Sewers, City of Chicago Department of Water Management, Metropolitan Water Reclamation Management District of Greater Chicago.
  • Under “program management” is Public Building Commission Chicago, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives.

He has not been “Chicago for Rahm Emanuel” contributor. Milhouse gave $5,000 to Gery Chico’s mayoral bid, but once Emanuel trounced Chico, there were apparently no hard feelings. In March 2011, Mayor-elect Emanuel appointed Milhouse to serve on his transition committee.

Milhouse’s committee will eventually offer “recommendations” and it will be the Mayor’s job to “review” them. Those with a concern that the Chicago Public School system survive and, even, eventually, thrive, will want to keep a close eye on Milhouse’s committee and hope that in future years it is not called back to work to consider what to do with additional closed buildings.

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