As other schools suffer major cuts, 43rd Ward alderman Michele Smith says the proposed expansion of Lincoln Elementary "expands opportunity."
As other schools suffer major cuts, 43rd Ward alderman Michele Smith says the proposed expansion of Lincoln Elementary "expands opportunity." Credit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media

Last I looked, Chicago’s public schools were so broke that Mayor Emanuel had to close 50 of them, fire hundreds of teachers, and slash budgets so deeply that in some cases funding disappeared for librarians, chess teams, and even toilet paper.

Schools in most civilized and developed societies take these things for granted. Especially the toilet paper.

And yet from out of nowhere, Mayor Emanuel recently came up with $18 million to build an addition at Lincoln Elementary, which, as the name suggests, services Lincoln Park, one of the richest neighborhoods in Chicago.

So on top of everything else, Chicago Public Schools now has to deal with the growing perception that only rich people matter in Mayor Emanuel’s city.

Well, when you put it that way . . .

OK, before I get to the heart of the matter, allow me to say this about Lincoln Elementary: I have nothing—absolutely nothing—against this fine school that I affectionately call lil’ Lincoln.

As opposed to big Lincoln, which is the high school the mayor recently manhandled by firing a bunch of perfectly good teachers.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. We live in Chicago, where we often squander our school money.

I love lil’ Lincoln! It’s a great, high-scoring school filled with wonderful children and caring parents. And I know it’s overcrowded. At the moment, there are more than 800 students attending a school whose ideal enrollment is 630.

According to 43rd Ward alderman Michele Smith—perhaps the biggest booster for the annex—lil’ Lincoln currently ranks 15th on CPS’s list of overcrowded schools.

So in a perfect world I would wholeheartedly endorse allocating the money Lincoln needs so that it doesn’t have to convert its art room, band room, auditorium, and gym into classrooms—as even more overcrowded schools on the southwest and northwest sides have had to do.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. We live in Chicago—a corrupt and often stupidly run city where we frequently squander our school money on frivolous stuff.

But I will not be writing about the $92 million—and counting—in property tax dollars that the mayor is determined to waste building a basketball arena for DePaul University and a hotel for Marriott in the South Loop. That money comes from the city’s tax increment financing program, over half of which is diverted from the public schools.

Sorry, I wasn’t going to talk about that.

In any event, there are ways to rectify the overcrowding at Lincoln without spending $18 million.

For starters, Lincoln has a gifted program and a special French program that together add more than 100 kids to the enrollment. So room could be freed up at Lincoln by moving these programs to an underutilized north-side school—and there are plenty of good ones right in the area.

This is such an obvious solution that even one of Mayor Emanuel’s top school officials figured it out. Tim Cawley, the mayor’s number two man at CPS, made a similar suggestion at a meeting in November 2011.

After pointing out that overcrowding at schools in Lincoln Park pales in comparison with those on the northwest side, Cawley proposed to ease it by “demagnetizing” LaSalle elementary.

That is, he proposed to switch the boundaries so that children who currently go to Lincoln would instead go to LaSalle, which is located a mile or so to the south.

But Cawley’s idea was attacked by parents from both Lincoln and LaSalle, who are about as politically well connected as any in this town. Some Lincoln parents worried that their homes would drop in value if they were moved outside the school’s boundaries.

The LaSalle solution was dead within days.

So in effect, educational policies are influenced by people looking to get the best deal possible should they decide to leave town. And you wonder why this system is so messed up.

The powers that be turned to option two: directly linking Lincoln’s future to the development of the Children’s Memorial Hospital site.

That’s the now-vacant property at the corner of Lincoln and Fullerton that developer Dan McCaffery has optioned to buy and convert into hundreds of residential units.

From the outset, area residents have been opposed to this development because of obvious concerns about density, height, and increased traffic.

Alderman Smith proposed that an addition to Lincoln be built on the hospital site, thus giving wary residents a reason to support McCaffery’s deal, or at least not strenuously oppose it.

But opponents correctly reasoned that putting a school on the site would only force McCaffery to build higher.

The mayor and Alderman Smith then decided to build an expansion on Lincoln’s playground. Essentially, that means the school can accommodate the families who will presumably move into the new high-rise once it gets built.

I ran this assessment past Alderman Smith. She disagreed with it—which wasn’t the first time I haven’t seen eye to eye with an alderman. “I think the Lincoln annex expands opportunity for Chicago not only in my ward, but the whole city,” she told me.

The mayor and Smith announced the expansion at a Veterans Day press conference to which they invited only supporters of the plan.

They were mistaken if they thought opponents wouldn’t respond. Within a few days, the plan was attacked by parents who don’t want to give up the playground and by nearby residents who don’t want more cars flooding the neighborhood to shuttle kids to school.

When Smith held a meeting to discuss the plan on November 20, folks were so riled up that two geezers exchanged punches. This prompted DNAinfo to compose one of my favorite headlines of the year: “CPS school annex meeting ends in fist fight.”

At least folks are passionate about something other than Derrick Rose’s knee.

Speaking of which—nooooo!!!!

With Lincoln, it’s pretty obvious that Mayor Emanuel finds himself in a classic spot where he can’t avoid pissing everyone off, though the number of people who want the addition will be more than outnumbered by the number of people who oppose it.

My suggestion, Mr. Mayor, is that you let it die. Blame the whole thing on some unnamed flunkies at the central office, like you’ve done with every other fiasco and crisis you’ve helped instigate. Then take that $18 million and spend it where it’s truly needed.