Four years ago this week, schoolchildren were filing into Bontemps Elementary at the start of another year in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
Today Bontemps sits vacant and abandoned – its sign flapping in the wind; The insides have been gutted and ransacked as the building remains one of the dozens of schools that are empty shells in neighborhoods across Chicago, more than three years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mass-closing of nearly 50 Chicago Public School buildings in 2013.
“It’s been completely vandalized,” says Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, who was recently allowed inside to tour the Bontemps school building. “Weeks of vandals. I mean, I think that folks spent weeks in this school.
“They took out all the wiring,” Butler says. “They took out all the insulation, all the plumbing – every piece of copper you can think about is absolutely missing from this building.”
Yet Chicago taxpayers continue to shell out money, every year, for Bontemps and the dozens of other Chicago Public School buildings that sit, vacant and often vandalized, throughout the city. For the past three and a half years, NBC5 Investigates has been tracking the utility and maintenance costs for these empty buildings, and -- so far -- the taxpayer bill tallies more than $6.2 million spent to heat and light these vacant buildings through May of 2016.
“You could have 600 teachers for that amount of money,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Sharkey argues that the 2013 closings – which were supposed to save the city money – have actually had the opposite result.
“When the public started to cry out about this mass school-closure plan, [CPS and the Mayor] started making promises – virtually none of which they had the ability to deliver on,” Sharkey said.
Indeed, by its own timetable, CPS should have – by now -- sold off most all of its 50-plus vacant buildings and started demolishing the few remaining structures. In reality, though, only 14 buildings have been repurposed or sold – some for millions, but others for prices as little as $325,000, $200,000 and even just $100,000 -- for an entire school building and the surrounding property.
Like Bontemps, the vast majority of remaining abandoned school buildings have been ransacked, vandalized or burglarized. NBC5 Investigates analyzed Chicago crime records and found that at least 41 of the empty buildings have suffered serious – often irreparable – damage.
NBC5 Investigates has also been continually asking the city for a tour of one or more of these abandoned buildings. Repeatedly, those requests have been turned down by both officials at CPS and Emanuel’s office, despite the fact that these are publicly-owned buildings, paid for with public money. CPS and the mayor have also refused to explain what is currently going on with all of the closed buildings, and why they are so far behind their own timetable.
So – more than three years later – dozens of schools that were once filled with little children remain just as empty hulks of bricks and steel in the middle of Chicago’s neighborhoods.
“To … have them sit vacant for year after year – it’s disheartening to our community,” says Butler. “It just really makes us feel hopeless.”