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Emanuel creates panel for closed school buildings

Published: Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 6:18 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 12:10 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Friday that he has created a panel to study what to do with nearly 50 Chicago public schools that have been closed as part of aggressive cost-cutting efforts.

The 13-member Advisory Committee for School Re-Purposing and Community Development includes aldermen, community members and city officials. It will be led by Wilbur Milhouse, the owner of a construction and engineering firm.

Milhouse said the properties won't remain vacant, but will be temporarily "boarded up and locked up tight" while the group sorts out proposals for the shuttered buildings.

The closures represent the single largest closing of schools in any American city in years.

"In other cities, I've seen them take schools and make them into urban gardens, theaters, community centers or mixed-use loft space," Milhouse told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I've seen them repurpose schools to where other agencies could utilize and rent out the space."

Angry parents and frustrated neighbors have said they're worried the vacant properties will attract crime in neighborhoods already struggling with violence. Others are worried the buildings will be converted into charter schools.

CPS officials have said they're serious about making sure the buildings are reused — eventually.

But the district has never had to find new uses for so many vacant schools at once. Milhouse said the group won't examine other vacant CPS properties.

"Each community is different," Milhouse told the newspaper. "We're really gonna engage with the community and find out what they need and want and what shape the buildings are in. Some people will take a building in bad shape and make it into something marvelous. It just costs more money. I look at this as an opportunity to revitalize communities."

In a statement, Emanuel said he hopes the group will help convert the spaces into "vital and vibrant community assets."

He'll take the committee's recommendations and decide how to proceed.

"The City of Chicago has an opportunity to use these facilities to revitalize our economy in key areas and expand opportunity for Chicagoans in our neighborhoods," Emanuel said.

The new school year for most Chicago Public School students is set to begin on Monday.

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