Chicago occupation demands: ‘Public money for public schools!’

By Rakhee Devasthali

Chicago FIST

In an echo of the Republic Windows and Doors occupation, which brought national attention to immigrant workers’ fight for their rights in December 2008, the battle to preserve the Whittier School Field House and Community Center has received a groundswell of support.

Hundreds of Chicago residents have turned out to support the predominantly Mexican-American families who are occupying the field house to forestall demolition, push for a much-needed school library and demand that Alderman Danny Solis fulfill his pledge to keep public money in public hands.

On Sept. 20 the organized parents of the school held a bilingual press conference to address Ron Huberman, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and hold him to his past commitments about school expansion.

Chicago Public Radio, Univision, FOX, CBS, ABC, NBC and WGN were present. Hundreds of community supporters held signs reading “Kids need libraries” and “Public money for public schools” and chanting “Aqui estamos! Y no nos vamos!” (We are here and we aren’t leaving!) and “Show your face, Solis!” when the alderman failed to attend the press conference.

Parents Lisa Angonese and Virginia Guevara called out CPS for its unkept promises and missing public funds. While parents hired an independent engineer to assess the building, and found it only needs $20,000 in roof repairs, CPS has declared the field house structurally unsafe, while never once producing documents to prove a formal inspection has been done. Parents also questioned the disappearance of $104,000 out of $200,000 allotted to the school for renovations under the American with Disabilities Act.

As in many cities, Chicago uses the Tax Increment Financing method ideally to finance community improvement projects by borrowing against future gains in taxes. But, just as public money is being used to fund private interests, TIF funds here must be monitored closely by the communities to protect against gentrification and ensure the money returns to them and stays in the hands of the public.

In guarding the interests of the Pilsen Mexican-American neighborhood, the parents refuse to accept the proposal for only 5 percent of the saved TIF funds to return to the community; of that, $356,000 would be used to demolish the community center. Additionally, the speakers revealed CPS plans to make the current public land available to a local Jesuit private school or developers.

The Whittier school building is currently filled to capacity and lacks many resources for education, namely a library. On top of this, the public library in the neighborhood has been closed all summer. Parents, joined by local representatives, are demanding that the TIF funds be used to renovate the field house and turn it into a library and that an abandoned police building on the same block be utilized as the promised school expansion.

Parents, students, teachers and community members intend to continue the occupation until they win their demands. “They keep threatening us with demolition crews that never show up. They are just playing with us and waiting until we get tired and leave. But what they don’t know is that we are Mexicans; we don’t get tired. This is important!” said Araceli Gonzales, one of the parents leading the occupation.


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