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Northwest Side Students Affected By Lack of Busing

Five weeks into the school year there is still no sign of a yellow school bus for some students on the city’s Northwest Side attending the Coonley Regional Gifted Center, forcing many working parents to find another way of getting their kids to school.

Coonley Regional Gifted Center is fighting back against the new busing boundaries that serve less than half the student population at the school. The Coonley Regional Gifted Center, located at the John C. Coonley School at 4046 N. Leavitt in the North Center neighborhood, opened two years ago, and the Local School Council assured parents of busing options before it opened.

To help Coonley with its desegregation goals, parents and school officials have joined forces with Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) and Ald. Patrick Levar (45th) to bring busing to their neighborhoods. These goals were put into effect to provide equal acceptance into the Regional Gifted Center Program.

According to a July 2009 Chicago Public School board report, which was signed by Barbara Eason-Watkins, chief education officer, Pedro Martinez, chief financial officer and Patrick Rocks, general counsel, the board was set to expand the transportation services available to students attending the Coonley Regional Gifted Center.

The only missing signature on the report that was needed to amend the boundaries was that of Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman. He could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts.

Marni Willenson, who has a first-grader at Coonley Regional Gifted Center, said after working with the school board and the CPS office for Academic Enhancement, the consensus was that there would be board approval and it was a “done deal.”

“We were basically told this was done by Jay Lee, who was overseeing this case as assigned by the CPS,” she said. “Lee said it would be amended and we would have busing services. He said everyone had approved, we were told it was only awaiting Ron Huberman’s signature.”

Chicago Public Schools spokesman Malon Edwards said because of the $470 million budget deficit, every program must find ways to make cuts. These cuts might be difficult to make and explain to parents and schools, he said.

“We are reluctant to make some of these cuts,” he said. “But we have to overcome the $470 million budget hole.”

Edwards was not able to narrow the exact cost of bringing busing to Coonley.

Lee, director of Gifted and Enriched Academic Programs for CPS, was assigned the case and worked hand-in-hand with Willenson.

“Jay Lee was very helpful and expedited the process of getting the board set to review,” she said. “He seemed to agree with us that there needed to be busing and that the system wasn’t working for our school.”

Willenson said Lee informed her that it would be unnecessary to attend the June meeting, in which the board was to vote to pass the new busing boundaries.

“He basically said this was over, the board will vote in our favor,” she said. “He told us not to attend the meeting because it would hurt our cause more than help it. It was this same meeting that our proposal was withdrawn and thrown out.”

Lee disagreed; he said it was never a done deal because it comes down to finances and what the CPS can afford. As far as informing the parents not to attend the July meeting, Lee couldn’t remember such a conversation.

“This is a financial issue,” Lee said. “The state of Illinois cut the funding and CPS is in a serious budget crunch – so we had to reevaluate transportation.”

At last week’s school board meeting, Tiffany Harvey, a parent of a first-grade student at Coonley, pleaded with Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott to allow busing for Coonley students the same way CPS does for its other students.

“I urge you to take up this issue again,” she said. “This needs to be addressed so nearby families from various neighborhoods who need transportation to attend an out of neighborhood school will see our school as an option.”

David Pickens, CPS chief of staff, said he has to gather all the facts and hear all sides before a decision can be made.

“It shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” he said. “Busing is a very complicated issue and there are always several sides, but I should be able to resolve this in the next 30 days. If we were to extend the busing routs, it probably would not go into effect until next year.”

For Coonley parents, this is unacceptable.

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