Chicagoans fed up with the mayor's decision to use public funds to help finance a controversial DePaul University basketball arena near McCormick Place urged the college's president Monday to refuse the $55 million in tax increment financing (TIF) funds set aside for the project.
About 40 education activists picketed outside a City Club of Chicago luncheon at a downtown Maggiano's where DePaul University President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider was speaking. The protestors said the private and profitable college does not need taxpayer dollars for the project, arguing that TIF money would be better spent on public education.
"Accepting city money from schools and from people who need it the most is not in the light of the tradition of St. Vincent DePaul," said Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, an organization represented at Monday's protest. "They're not living up to their legacy, and we want to remind him of that ... This is not acceptable, and we want [Holtschneider] to refuse that money and let it go back to our schools."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans for the new $173 million DePaul stadium near McCormick Place in May, just days before the Chicago Board of Education voted to close a record-breaking number of public schools across the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district. Chicago's public schools are also facing $68 million in classroom spending cuts this school year as the district works to plug a $1 billion budget deficit.
Outside of Maggiano's, organizers with Action Now, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and other groups shouted, "What would St. Vincent Do? Release TIF money and give it our schools!"
"We clearly cannot count on this mayor to do the right thing by the people of Chicago," CTU's Brandon Johnson said. "The mayor has made it very clear that his priorities are with the elite and the very folks who want to destroy public education and privatize our assets ... We should be able to at least count on Father Dennis to do the right thing even if the mayor won't."
Here's a look at the protest as well as comments from Johnson and Action Now's Charles Brown:
The city's TIF program began in 1986 under former city Mayor Harold Washington and was originally set up to help reinvigorate blighted communities. For those living in one of the city's current 154 active TIF districts, a portion of their property tax dollars gets diverted from local units of government, including the school district, with the purpose of funding economic development projects within TIF districts' boundaries. But critics of the program say the term "blighted" has lost nearly all of its meaning, considering the fact that TIF districts have been created downtown and in other already-prospering areas.
"When we look at why the schools are underfunded, look at all the TIFs, especially in black communities where we're seeing schools underperforming," Wilson said. "They're not getting the same resources that's necessary."
Jitu Brown, with KOCO, noted that in addition to the recent school closings and budget cuts, the school district sent out a request for proposals for new charter schools in August. He says charters perform no better than neighborhood public schools.
The budget cuts and possible expansion of charters show that working and low-income families are not on the mayor's list of priorities, according to Brown, who added that Emanuel's policies "reflect his values."
"This is why we need an elected school board in Chicago. This is why we need democracy," Brown continued. "What we're experiencing is our communities being turned upside down."
The proposed 10,000-seat basketball arena is part of Emanuel's bigger vision to establish an entertainment district at McCormick Place, including a new, 1,200-room hotel at the convention center.
DePaul University is set to pay $70 million for the arena, while another $70 million will come from the McCormick Place Exposition Authority’s bond fund. TIF dollars have been allocated to pay for the remaining $33.5 million for the basketball stadium and another $21.5 million in TIF funds has been set aside to buy up land for the hotel, which is expected to cost $400 million.
DePaul University students who are against using public funds for the stadium presented a letter with their demands to Holtschneider at Monday's luncheon.
The students say Holtschneider should demand that the city return the $55 million in TIF funds to Chicago's public schools in order to align with the DePaul School of Education's mission statement, which states, "With a commitment to the poor and disenfranchised in society, we believe in education as a force for social justice. We also strive to be a community of learners who engage in dialogue and inquiry leading to the improvement of educational practices in schools, communities and higher education."
"Robbing schools of much-needed funding violates the principles and values of DePaul," the letter argued.
The mayor has said that his 2014 budget, set to be unveiled Wednesday, would declare a $40 million to $50 million TIF surplus, with CPS reportedly receiving $20 million to $25 million of those funds.
But Jeanette Taylor, president of the Local School Council (LSC) at Irvin C. Mollison Elementary, said that's not enough. She says the mayor should be investing closer to 75 percent of TIF surplus funds in public schools.
Taylor said Mollison, for example, does not have a lunchroom this year now that it has been converted into a classroom to accommodate an influx of students from Anthony Overton Elementary School, one of 50 underutilized schools the Chicago Board of Education voted to close in May.
"The people who are with Rahm or taking money from Rahm need to realize you’re hurting the people who you’re supposed to serve," Taylor said. "DePaul university is an excellent school, but how can our kids get into it if they can’t even compete? ... These people who are sitting here [at Maggiano's] eating their $100-plate meal need to know you're stepping on low-income and working families."
Brown also noted that Mollison's test scores have been on the rise over recent years, but added that academic improvement may be stifled due to the school's recent shakeup and its increased number of students.
"What's going to happen to Mollison in two years if the scores go down? They'll be on the school closing list even though they've had six straight years of improved test scores," he stressed. "That's academic sabotage; [it's] sabotaging a neighborhood school that's doing well by forcing a change on it, and then swooping in to continue your agenda afterwards."
Brown is also on the LSC at Walter H. Dyett High School, which is in the process of being phased out by the district. Due to budget cuts and other changes at the school, he said Dyett no longer has an art teacher or a gym teacher, meaning students have to take physical education classes via online instruction.
He urged Holtschneider to "go against the grain" and stand with the students and community members who "would love to go to DePaul one day," but are often locked out from attending such institutions of higher education due to, what he calls,the failings of the school district.
"[Chicago] children who have the capacity aren't educated to the level to be able to go (to DePaul)," Brown noted. "[Holtschneider] could make history by actually standing with the grandmothers, with the fathers, with the mothers who want what's best for their children."