Nestled in a quiet part of Roseland, at the corner of 99th Street and Indiana Avenue, sits what was once John G. Shedd Elementary School. Shedd Elementary served as a satellite school to nearby Bennett Elementary until 2013.
After Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed fifty schools in 2013, the district made an effort to provide information about the status and sale of the vacated school buildings. CPS maintains a list of these schools, along with a schedule of upcoming meetings (none of them current), and a map color-coding schools as “Undergoing community engagement process” or “Repurposed.” So far, only fourteen of the forty-three vacated buildings have been repurposed or sold, according to the Reporter. As little as can be gleaned from district-provided information on schools closed in 2013, it’s even harder to know what’s going on with closed school buildings outside of that list, like Shedd. But that hasn’t stopped some Roseland residents from bringing up the status of Shedd Elementary at recent ward meetings and advocating for the school’s repurposing.
Marilyn Keeter, principal of the Rescue Missionary Christian School, had hoped to move her school into the vacant building and turn it into something that could benefit the community. In 2014, she and Pastor Estelle Keeter (her mother and the school’s founder) went to inquire about the school’s condition.
“As you know, many other public schools are massive; we’re a small Christian school so we weren’t looking for anything that was huge,” said Keeter. “We wanted something that we knew would give us more room to grow but at the same time be something that we could handle.”
After the initial viewing of the school, Keeter said they immediately began what she described as a strenuous bidding process.
“We first had to meet with the real estate broker that was handling the property for CPS. After meeting with her, she arranged a time for us to go formally see the property. After we did that, myself, the pastor, and the board met with her and she emailed me all of the documents that needed to be sent in. Fifty-two pages were sent to us. There was a deadline for the bidding documents to be turned in and they were filled out extensively,” she said.
Keeter said that a lot of the questions were in regards to the repairs that needed to be done on the property. They were new to the process so they asked to be let into the property a second time, where they took their own licensed inspector to point out the things that had to be repaired.
“After checking out the boiler, the roof, siding and all those different things, there were an astronomical amount of repairs that we knew needed to be done in order to bring that building up to code. One of CPS’s stipulations was, ‘If you buy this property, you buy it as is. If you find out that it’s sitting on hazardous waste, it’s not our concern,’” Keeter said. “It was more than just, ‘Oh this is nice, we want it.’ No—we had to really go in there and say, ‘This needs to be changed, this needs to be brought up to code.’ It was a situation like that.”
CPS also wanted to know how the Rescue Missionary Christian School would engage with the Roseland Heights community.
According to Clevan Tucker, president of the Roseland Heights Community Association, Keeter and the Rescue Missionary School had to be vetted by community members and explain how purchasing Shedd Elementary would benefit everyone in the community.
“They presented us with a packet and they went over the benefits; they’d leave the space open and they would improve it and allow us to use the building for community association meetings and events so it would have been a partnership between the new owners and the community,” said Tucker.
Because the property sits on a large amount of land, Keeter said that they wanted to revitalize it. “There would be a little walking path or a gardening type thing for the seniors. [In] the back of the school, we wanted to start a community garden. So there were many aspects of the bidding itself that [the community] wanted to know. That’s another reason we went to the Roseland Heights Community [Association], because we wanted to know how they would feel if a Christian school were to purchase this property.”
The Rescue Missionary Christian School then presented their information to the district and 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, along with another bidder (“We never got a name. All we knew was that it was a [housing] developer,” Tucker said). Both bids were rejected. “The highest bidder did not get community approval so my thought was, ‘Shouldn’t it go to the second highest bidder since you only had two?’ But no, he rejected both bids and put it back up for sale. At least that’s the story we got,” said Tucker.
In fact, because Shedd was not officially considered one of the schools closed in 2013, there was no district requirement for community input or public meetings at the time (now, that requirement has been lifted for many schools closed in 2013 as well).
According to Beale, the bid by the Rescue Missionary Christian School was denied because he felt they did not have “the resources to accomplish what the community is looking to have done,” he said. “If the building needs redoing, they really don’t have the capital to rehab the building, keep up with the maintenance of the building, keep up with the landscaping, all those types of things.”
According to a Freedom of Information Act request, Shedd Elementary accumulated approximately $5,430 in gas and electricity costs from July 2015 to June 2016, which has residents wondering why taxpayers are still paying to keep the lights on in a closed building.
Beale explained that some buildings are secured by alarm systems. “You don’t want a school just sitting there open. You might want to make sure the heat stays at a certain temperature so the pipes don’t freeze. There’s a lot of things going on, just because a building is vacant doesn’t mean that there’s no activity in the building. There’s still a light amount of maintenance being done,” he said.
The building is still in good condition and has yet to become an eyesore in the neighborhood. But residents still want to see the building repurposed.
“The appearance is fine,” said Marvin Bonds, a nearby resident. “It’s not shattered with broken windows or hanging gutters. I like it the way it is here. I hope they don’t turn it into a development of some kind.”
“I’d like to see them do something with the property,” added his wife, Fran Bonds. “I think a community center or a school would be good.”
Bonds added that while a school may be a good idea, there might not be enough kids in the community for a school. “I don’t see a lot of little kids around here. We’re in our sixties and there are a few kids that come and play here in this playground, but I don’t think there’s enough here for a community center or school,” said Marvin.
There’s some evidence that opening new schools (specifically charters) in areas with declining child population drains students, and student-based funds, from nearby neighborhood schools. That’s a problem any new school, including Rescue Missionary Christian School, would have to confront. However, according to a report by Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, in contrast to some other community areas on the South and West Sides with declining school-age populations, Roseland’s child population has remained relatively stable between 1990 and 2010.
Beale said that some members of the community want to see some type of youth education incubator in the building. “It’s a very good building. It’s a very good location, a quiet community. So we want to make sure that we educate kids and still have the community quiet like they’re accustomed to,” he said.
“There are a couple of users out there that are able to do that but again, we’re just not going to accept anything and put it in there just to have somebody in the building. We want to make sure we get the right fit. That’s all we’re trying to do.”
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