Friday, March 22, 2013

The Importance of keeping open “underutilized schools.”

I have lived in Chicago for 21 years and my wife runs a small business here. Each day, I am increasingly distressed by the growing number of empty storefronts that line our City avenues.   I mourn the loss of each small business that closes its doors not only for the business owner who may have invested years or his or her life in an individual endeavor, but also for me, as a Chicago taxpayer and resident.  I mourn because I recognize that each open business suggests a vibrancy and a commitment by at least one adult to maintain that particular piece of real estate, while a shuttered building suggests the exact opposite: not a single person has enough of a regard or investment stake for this particular piece of Chicago property to properly maintain it.  While at first glance it may appear that I am not immediately impacted by the closing of a storefront business, I recognize that a shuttered building is an invitation to a communal decline and this will ultimately negatively impact my economic circumstance.

Each day I drive to work down Ashland Avenue from my North Side home.  As I slowly move down the street from Lawrence to Jackson, I see an ever increasing number of empty storefronts, many marred by graffiti, each suggesting both personal and communal abandonment.   The empty storefronts are sometimes abutted by businesses that do still exist; I wonder how those shop owners must feel.  I know, as a potential customer to those functioning businesses, that I will not be frequenting stores that are next to abandoned buildings quite as often as I might visit stores that are surrounded by fully operational businesses.  While it is unfair to the business owners that do own shops next to empty storefronts, I cannot help but make the intellectual and emotional decision to avoid such areas and stores.  I assume a decline that feeds further communal decline.

What does all this have to do with school closings?  In my view, everything. From my point of view, schools are a fundamental element of any community, often the social center of residents’ lives.  The closing of any school signals a communal decline and augurs future business decline.  For this reason, I think it is imperative that the Chicago Public Schools and the City’s business community rethink their understanding of “savings.”   The recent announcement of school closings for the sake of “taxpayer savings” Is a case in point.

Let’s assume for a moment that all of the claims CPS is making regarding “underutilized schools” are correct.  Let’s assume that 54 schools in various Chicago neighborhoods are “underutilized” and that those “underutilized” schools are costing CPS $500,000 each to remain open. Let’s further assume that CPS does have in place a cost free plan to counter critics’ arguments that closing schools are disruptive to the lives of children and sometimes potentially dangerous for them (some might have to cross into unfamiliar territory or rival gang territory).    Since the “cash strapped” district is in need of finding every saving it can, shouldn’t those 54 schools be closed?  Shouldn’t Chicago homeowners, taxpayers and business owners  be cheering the potential “27 million dollars” in such “savings”?  The answer is a resounding “No.” 

Here’s why: every school that is closed adds to the blight and destabilization of a neighborhood.  Every closed school invites further social decline in what sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling have articulated as the “Broken Windows Theory”. (Atlantic Monthly 1982)  This theory suggests that the abandoned buildings invite crime and a communal sense that an area is on the decline.  This sense of decline adds to further decline and an eventual lower regard for the surrounding area.  All of this leads to a lowering of property values.

I want my Mayor and CPS to keep every school open it can because I believe a half filled school is better than a shuttered school.  A half filled school suggests a vibrancy and it means there is at least one adult inside that school working to maintain it, not only for the children the school serves, but also for the community that school anchors.    The $27 million cost of keeping such schools open, I firmly believe, is well worth it not only to residents who live near the school, but for Chicago as a whole.

Each time we abandon or shutter a school, we are marring our communal landscape and inviting further social decline.  It is imperative that CPS and the Civic Leaders of Chicago recognize that what the money they believe they are “saving”  is actually promoting further economic decline that is far more costly to residents of Chicago.  Those who do not believe me need only ask business owners whose storefronts abut vacant businesses.