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Whittier Parents Succeed In Blocking New Library

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(Lisa Fielding/WBBM Photo)

(Lisa Fielding/WBBM Photo)

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CHICAGO (STMW) – Pilsen parents who once staged a 43-day sit-in to get a library at Whittier Elementary School now have succeeded in getting the project halted.

“As a result of your continued opposition in allowing us access to the school, we have no other choice than to cancel construction of the library project this summer,” Chicago schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said Wednesday in a letter to the Whittier Parents Committee.

The weeklong delay in construction cost the cash-strapped district about $150,000, Chicago Public Schools officials said. And the protest group’s ever-shifting demands have frustrated district leaders.

After the initial sit-in last year, CPS agreed to the parents’ demand for a library and agreed to spare a nearby field house from demolition. However, the district said, the library would be built inside the school, not in the field house, as parents had asked.

Parents at the time accepted that plan, so long as the library was not constructed in newly rehabbed areas of the school. But as the district tried to begin construction of the $400,000 library last week, some parents, community agitators and leftist activists from across the city converged on the neighborhood, blocking construction crews from entering the school.

Protesters said a library inside the school would displace special education classes — an assertion CPS denies. Instead, the group asked the district to support an estimated $750,000 project to transform the run-down, one-story field house into a parent center and library. And the group recently added a new demand: That CPS pay part of the cost of the field house project.

That has led some to wonder whether the library was ever the issue and whether the dispute would ever be resolved.

“Pilsen has a strong history of community activism,” said Phil Mullins, an executive at the United Neighborhood Organization, the influential Latino group that runs a network of charter schools. “But what you also have is some folks who see Pilsen as a place to work out an ideological agenda that’s measured not by accomplishments but by rhetoric. It’s unfortunate that people don’t know when to declare victory and take the good.”

Some have questioned who is behind the Whittier Parents Committee. Last week, seven mothers were among 30 protesters, who included members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

One of the group’s key backers, Cuahutemoc “Temoc” Morfin, said the group has about 30 school parents who indirectly support the cause. About 13 moms have participated in the sit-ins, he said.

But Morfin is also involved in local politics. He forced 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis into a runoff in April, although Solis won re-election.

And the three leading spokeswomen for the cause are activists Carolina Gaete, a director with grassroots community organizer Blocks Together; and Gema Gaete and Evelin Santos, who once worked for the Pilsen Alliance, an organization that has advocated for blue-collar immigrants in the neighborhood.

“I’m not the organizer,” says Gema Gaete, who bristles at the idea that activists are spurring the effort. “The parents are the bosses. We just pose the questions.”

Whittier parents started agitating seven years ago for renovations at the school. CPS would not approve a 10-room expansion the parents wanted, which would have cost about $15 million. So the group appealed to Solis, who allocated $1.7 million in TIF funds, the lion’s share of which went to pay for a cafeteria expansion, new science and computer labs, and a parent room that was completed in 2009.

The group began its 2010 sit-in after learning CPS planned to demolish the field house and replace it with a soccer field to be used by the neighboring Cristo Rey, a private Jesuit high school.

“So we said, ‘Why are you going to demolish the field house and why are you going to build a soccer field here for a private school?'” parent Araceli Gonzalez said.

Angry at what it saw as broken promises by the district and elected officials, the group hardened its stand. Members tape conversations with district officials and show up at every school board meeting, often with complaints or protests. And sometimes they turn on each other — as they did at this week’s meeting with Brizard, confused over whether a previous agreement with the district called for CPS to pay for the field house renovation.

The first protest and occupation of the field house came to an end in late October when then-schools CEO Ron Huberman agreed to stop the field house’s demolition, rent it to the parents for $1 a year, and help the group secure funding for the building’s renovation by working with elected officials.

On Monday, after they had occupied the field house for a week in a second sit-in, the group met with Brizard, who attempted to address their concerns. He explained that special education students are integrated in classrooms and would not be displaced by a library. He also said the school would still have space for special ed students to meet in smaller group sessions.

The group told Brizard they would allow library construction to begin if Brizard would reiterate that explanation in writing. But in a press release a few hours later, they added the demand for CPS to help fund the fieldhouse renovation.

CPS officials then followed through on their threat to stop the construction.

“Thank you for putting the project on hold,” Gema Gaete said. “That’s what we were asking for.”

© Sun-Times Media Wire Chicago Sun-Times 2011. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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