Local residents and school and elected officials on Chicago's Southwest Side packed a town hall meeting at Thomas Kelly High School late Thursday morning to push back against a proposal to open two new charter high schools in the area.
The charter proposal comes at a time when neighborhood schools on the Southwest Side and across the city are facing another round of deep budget cuts as the school district grapples with large budget and pension problems.
Those at today's town hall meeting argued that the new Noble campuses could come at the expense of cash-starved traditional neighborhood schools and the programs they offer. If district-run neighborhood schools lose students to the new charters, for example, they would see less funding due to Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) per-pupil budgeting formula.
"Noble Charter Schools argue that our schools are overcrowded. That our schools don't offer quality options and that about 1,00 youth have to commute out of the neighborhoods to attend their schools," said Jocelyn Rodriguez, a recent Kelly High School graduate who moderated Thursday's meeting, which was spearheaded by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. "Well, let me tell you something. We don't need a new school. Our schools are not overcrowded, and our schools are not bad schools."
Elected officials who attended the meeting included Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Chicago Alds. Marty Quinn (13th) and Raymond Lopez (15th).
"I stand today before you against [the] expansion of charter schools on the Southwest Side and in support of our local Chicago public schools," Quinn said.
At a time when the Chicago Public Schools is facing a projected $1.1 billion deficit in the coming school year, Garcia said it would be inappropriate to "take money out of our public schools and invest them in the creation of new schools on the Southwest Side, or anywhere in Chicago."
Garcia reiterated his support for a charter school moratorium in Chicago. He called on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as well as the new CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark to "rethink the charter mania that has been rampant in Chicago" and "to invest in neighborhood schools throughout the city of Chicago."
Noble's proposal to open up to two high school campuses on the Southwest Side in fall 2016 was submitted to CPS back in April as part of the district's new schools application process. Under state law, the school district has to open up its application process for new charter schools each year. The district, however, is not required to approve the new charter school applications it receives.
Rejected charter school applications, however, could be appealed to the state's Illinois State Charter School Commission, which has the power to overrule local school boards if they turn down new school proposals from charter firms.
As part of CPS' latest new schools process, Noble also wanted to bring a campus to the Uptown neighborhood on the city's North Side. But the public outcry over Noble's proposed location led to the Chicago Board of Education to delay consideration of the plan. Noble has since withdrawn the proposal.
The locations for Noble's proposed Southwest Side campuses have not been finalized, though the charter network is considering sites near 47th Street and California Avenue as well as 57th Street and Karlov Avenue.
A representative from Noble could not immediately be reached for comment on this story. Noble has told other news outlets that private funds will be used to start up the new campuses, if approved. Noble argues that its proposed high schools could help address overcrowding at local schools and provide convenience to Noble students who already live on the Southwest Side, but attend schools in other communities.
"Right now, we have 1,500 students that already come from the Southwest Side and we know that a lot of the high schools in the area are overcrowded," Noble's director of government affairs Matthew McCabe told DNAinfo Chicago. "It seems like it will make a lot of sense to give families what they are already looking for. They are already traveling to other parts of the city to get the best possible education from a Noble high school."
According to an analysis of CPS data by Catalyst Chicago, eight Southwest Side high schools are expected to reach or exceed enrollment capacity in the coming academic year.
But charter expansion opponents, including Kelly High School Principal James Coughlin, argue that there are more than enough seats in Chicago's Southwest Side high schools.
Since becoming principal in 2012, Coughlin said Kelly High School's enrollment has dropped from 3,100 students to a projected 2,200 students this fall.
"We have seats," he told reporters during a press conference before the town hall meeting. "And there is choice, excellent choice, in the Southwest Side and (its) community schools."
At the town hall, Coughlin ticked off a list of student achievements at Kelly High School, including the $26 million in total college scholarships they've earned over the past two years. He said 270 Kelly high schoolers also earned college credit through their Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and City Colleges of Chicago dual enrollment work in the last academic year.
"There is a choice, and we're happy that parents have choice," he said. "And we know that given accurate information, they will choose the Southwest Side neighborhood high schools."
As for the 1,500 Noble students from the Southwest Side who travel elsewhere to attend school, BPNC Executive Director Patrick Brosnan said those families made the choice to do so.
"That's their choice, and that's a fine choice for them," Brosnan said. "But, (Noble's) argument is an argument of convenience. And the reality is that, that convenience is not worth the instability and future of our current schools."
Here's more from Brosnan as well as town hall comments from Garcia and Tykira Taylor, an incoming junior at Kelly High School:
Taylor, meanwhile, explained that there have already been five new high schools built recently on the Southwest Side.
"Why is there a need to build a new school when we're in dire need," she asked, adding that Kelly High School's budget for the coming year has been slashed by $833,000.
Kelly High School is in need of repairs, Taylor said. Among other problems, she said there's a large hole in the cafeteria ceiling and bathroom water faucets are broken.
"How about instead of building another school, you help make this school better," she said.
The Chicago Board of Education could vote on whether to approve Noble's proposal at its October meeting.