About a year ago the central office announced its plan to close the Wilson Occupational High School. The idea was to merge the school for mentally handicapped students with Taft, one of the city’s largest high schools.

The proposal came without warning and interrupted efforts by Wilson’s leaders to move their school into a larger building and expand its curriculum. Wilson marshaled its forces–sending the 15-member Board of Education hundreds of letters and soliciting help from school activists across the city. The central office backed off.

“We thought we were saved,” says Jay Mulberry, principal of the school. “They never wrote us a letter and said, ‘You can stay open.’ But they stopped trying to close us. We thought they would let us go about our business.”

Wrong. Last month the central office, hoping to save a few million dollars for a system that’s more than $200 million in debt, proposed closing five schools. Once again it recommended that the board merge Wilson and Taft–igniting yet another series of time- and energy-consuming protests. “We have to spend too much time fighting these efforts to close us,” Mulberry says. “Our real purpose should be about educating our students.”

Just who supports the merger is not clear, since school officials would not respond for comment. But leaders at Wilson and Taft say it threatens ambitious reorganization efforts at both schools. “No one asked us about this consolidation plan,” says Bill Watts, Taft’s principal. “It makes our reorganization plans more difficult, and it screws up the fine program that Wilson has. I don’t see how it could benefit either school.”

The showdown reveals that school councils still find themselves at the mercy of anonymous central-office power brokers, even in the age of local control. “Our problem is not with the members of the Board of Education–they have been very responsive,” says Mulberry. “The resistance is coming from somewhere else in the system. And I don’t know where.”

Most baffling is why officials would want to close Wilson, one of the system’s uncelebrated success stories. The school opened in 1970, the product of a new state law that required special facilities for children who have an “educable mental handicap.” “We take the more low-functioning students,” says Mulberry. “Their reading ability is less than third-grade.”

Wilson has 130 students and 12 teachers, and it operates on an annual budget of $1.2 million. It emphasizes what Mulberry calls a functional education. “We’re trying to prepare our students for real-life experiences. We’re not giving them a liberal-arts education. We’re giving them an education in life.”

The school has never had its own building. For years the central office moved it in and out of different schools. Since 1981, however, it has operated out of the Beaubien Elementary School at 5025 N. Laramie.

A couple of years ago school officials decided to move Wilson to a building of its own. They found a vacant Illinois Bell facility at 4355 N. Linder, which they bought after a year of negotiations with the phone company.

Wilson leaders also lined up an architect who drew up plans for rehabbing the building, and Mulberry raised about $75,000 from McDonald’s, Peoples Gas, and the Carl Perkins Fund to buy kitchen equipment. “We got a special-equipment kitchen designer to design our kitchen so that the students would have experience in fast-food and regular facilities,” says Mulberry. “It’s all part of teaching them a usable skill.”

For the most part the central office was cooperative–or at least its functionaries did not get in the way. Money to purchase and renovate the building was raised as part of a larger bond issue. Central-office officials participated in the purchase negotiations and reviewed the building plans. “We were working with various parts of the central office in terms of staffing the new building,” says Mulberry. “We were working with personnel to find lunchroom people who can work well with our students. All of this is very complicated. We’ve never done this before. And there is nobody in the central office who can help you put the whole thing together. Things at the board are not made for change or innovation–it’s not like you can come up with an idea and they’ll just put it together.”

Staff and parents at Wilson first learned about the planned merger with Taft from an April 25, 1991, Sun-Times article. General superintendent Ted Kimbrough and his chief financial aide, Robert Sampieri, wanted to show Mayor Daley and downstate legislators that they were willing to make tough decisions in their effort to trim the system’s deficit–though they acknowledged that the system would save no more than $115,000 by merging the two schools. “No one was ever very clear about how much could be saved,” says Mulberry. “I don’t think much planning went into that proposal.”

After the outcry that followed, the central office backed down, and Wilson went on with its plans to move. Then last month the Sun-Times revealed that the board was again planning to close or consolidate several schools. “The article mentioned several schools by name, but we were not one of them,” says Mulberry. “It did mention Phillips, Hirsch, and Lucy Flower high schools.”

One day later the Sun-Times ran another article with a revised list. Phillips, Hirsch, and Lucy Flower had been saved. But Wilson was now on the list, along with Manley and Cregier high schools and Schiller and Shakespeare elementary schools.

Local activists can only speculate about what caused the central office to alter its list. Some wonder whether the board ever really intended to close Phillips, Hirsch, or Lucy Flower–all long-established institutions in black south- and west-side neighborhoods. The scuttlebutt among reformers is that school officials may have wanted people to worry that these schools might be closed so that Kimbrough and board president Clinton Bristow could look like heroes when they insisted on keeping them open.

Central-office officials have long maintained that their decisions are always based on what’s best for the system–and that politics never plays a role. Indeed, after last year’s ruckus the board established certain criteria to be used when determining which schools might be closed. Among other things, they agreed not to close schools that are stably integrated or meet a special purpose–like Wilson. “They are only supposed to close schools if the places to which the students will eventually go can provide them an equal education,” says Mulberry. “And we don’t think that’s possible at Taft.”

Again Wilson parents and leaders led a protest. “It was horribly insulting to have to read in the paper that we were one of five schools that should be closed,” says Mulberry. “It’s ridiculous that we have to go through this process again.”

School officials told Wilson leaders that the old Illinois Bell building could be used to help alleviate overcrowding at nearby elementary schools. But the facility has no gym and the current rehab plans would have to be redrawn to accommodate mainstream students–the cost of which would eat into any money saved by closing Wilson. Estimates of how much would be saved now range from $59,000 to $89,000, according to what Mulberry has heard from school officials.

Wilson’s leaders allied with their counterparts at Taft, who were particularly outraged that the board had not notified them of the consolidation plans. “We have massive plans to do restructuring,” says Bill Watts. “We are planning to establish several schools within one school. It’s a massive project, involving moving teachers all over the place and blocking out different rooms. I need every square inch I can get. Now all of a sudden we’re told to block out 12 to 14 classrooms for Wilson’s kids. Well, it’s not that simple. Here we are trying to improve education and then the central office steps in at the last minute to make things difficult.

“What really bothers me is that no one from the board contacted us. You’re talking about integrating 130 very needy children into a very large high school–and there is no planning. They didn’t call us. They didn’t call Wilson. Something like this should require a year of planning.”

To their credit, members of the Board of Education agreed to visit the five schools targeted for closing. Last week five board members visited Wilson. They toured the building, listened to several impassioned pleas, and, while making no promises, expressed sympathy for the school’s plight. They were the first words of sympathy Wilson had had from the central office.

“They made it very clear that they were under political pressure from state legislators to close some schools,” says Mulberry. “In a way I feel sorry for some of these board members. I feel they want to do the right thing. But they’re overworked and they may not know the reason we’re on the list. I’m not sure anyone does.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.