By Madeline Makoul
Community members are addres-sing mounting frustrations with Whitney Young Magnet High School as they face continued restrictions on community access to its $4.3 million Michelle Obama Sports Complex, despite prior agreements and public funding.
The school built the track and added artificial turf back in 2019 in an effort funded entirely by tax increment financing (TIF) dollars, and the community has experienced evolving access issues since.
May Toy, president of the Skinner Park Advisory Council, noted the school long had shared its athletic facilities with the community but in recent years has put up increasing barriers to using the state-of-the-art, multi-purpose field as well as the Katrina Adams tennis courts and other amenities.
“We had an agreement in place, but this past year they reneged on it,” Toy explained, noting that concerning the sports complex, the school “just locked it up. They didn’t send an email to me. They didn’t say anything to me. They didn’t say it wasn’t working or why. They just locked it up.”
Rickey Harris, who became the new principal this fall, shared that while there have been some misunderstandings, the facilities remain open to the public when not used by students, stating that they are “unlocked and open for use.”
However, Toy noted she and community members continually encounter closed and locked facilities that prevent public access to amenities including the tennis courts, track, indoor gyms, pool, and weight rooms.
Also, following tennis court renovations, the school implemented a reservation system and began charging an hourly fee to reserve the courts, something it did not discuss nor share with the community, according to Toy.
“There wasn’t a reason to lock it up,” Toy said. “They just decided one day that they were locking it up and then instilled a new rule that, after the tennis courts were rehabbed, a reservation system was instituted where they charge $15 an hour. That was never in the agreement. This, for all intents and purposes, is a public facility paid for by public tax dollars, and you can’t go around charging that kind of money for access.”
Julie Darling, a West Loop resident since 1999 who sits on WestLoop.org’s board of directors, pointed out significant inconsistency in facility hours, causing confusion and lack of access. Darling said she is “very disheartened” by the situation and the lack of community access, especially when officials used the public’s money to fund the amenities and their improvements.
“It was literally community money that went to build it in the first place,” Darling said. “And keep in mind, it’s not just for the West Loop, ‘ah the affluent West Loop.” No, it’s for everybody on the West Side, the South Side. It was supposed to be for the community’s use, too.”
Initial agreement and latest changes
At the time of the renovations in 2019, local leaders and school administrators worked to lay out an agreement concerning access hours.
Toy shared with Gazette Chicago email correspondence among Whitney Young’s former principal, Joyce Kenner, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), representatives, and the Skinner Park Advisory Council that clearly outlined hours for community use of the new and improved facilities. An Aug. 22, 2019, email notes the track would be available to the community Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekends from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Additionally, agreements for the tennis courts stated at least two of the four courts must be open for community use.
Furthermore, the emails said, “if people are not respecting the spaces” and a need arises for changes to the rules outlined in the email correspondence, Whitney Young and Skinner Park Advisory Council would work together to create a solution.
As Toy said, the situation has not played out according to these agreements.
Whitney Young “feels as though
if they have one student on that field, they can kick the public off the track, but that’s not what the agreement was,” Toy said. “It has been very haphazard the way they are honoring the agreement. It’s at their whim as to when the facilities open. There should be hours that people can depend on and not just when Whitney Young says, ‘Oh I’m closing it today because I feel like it.’”
Principal Harris, however, stated in an interview that the school is maintaining the designated community hours. That being said, he stated the school also has a responsibility to its students, which is why there are restrictions when physical education classes or sporting events are taking place.
“There have been times when we have students or classes out there and we have to ask community members to not be on the facility,” Harris said. “It’s a safety issue. We have guidelines. If visitors are interacting in any kind of way with students, they have to go through a vetting process and receive approval from the district to enter classrooms. That’s no different with PE, so we treat that the same way.”
To address the limited, inconsistent community access and availability, Toy spoke with Alderman Walter Burnett (27th Ward) and Harris, in September. Toy said that, when she shared the agreement ironed out in the 2019 emails, Principal Harris said he would discuss it with his physical education teachers and get back to her.
Since she met with Harris, Toy said that, in recent weeks, the accessibility issue has grown, with the school taking down the public access signs from the facilities. Now, Toy said, the facilities are locked even more consistently, and at the time of publishing, the school has not replaced the access signs and public hours.
While the removal of the access signs was alarming to the community, Harris explained that this was a misunderstanding. In fact, Harris said old signs were taken down as new signage was being ordered. While there was a gap between when old signage and new signage was implemented, by the time of this issue’s publication, Harris said the new signs would be up clearly stating the agreed upon access hours.
“As far as I know, the hours are the same, and it’s specifically stated on the signs that during the school hours or school events, that will be school time. But anything outside of that is open” to the public, Harris said.
As Toy and other community members look to the future and their use of the facilities, they believed more consistent access is essential to maintaining good relations between Whitney Young and the public.
“A lot of times, people push for these facilities to be shared, but they don’t realize how hard it really is to get the school to honor these agreements,” Toy said. “It sounds great on paper until you actually try to implement it. I get it, the school should have priority access, but it doesn’t mean that it should be done at the exclusion of the community. There are reasonable things that can be done.”
Darling again emphasized the facility is meant for more than just the immediate West Loop residents and said the recent changes startled the community and affect families and children across the city.
“It falls on Whitney [Young] and Skinner [Skinner Park Advisory Council] to manage the dynamic because it never should have gone sideways in the first place,” Darling said. “It was a big surprise, and I think they need to work with the community more.”
As the new principal as of this school year, Harris said he hopes to maintain good relations with the community and address any “miscommunications” such as those with public access.
“I would hope that we can keep the lines of communication open, and if there are issues or a question, to just contact us and I’m hoping that we can address it and work through whatever misunderstanding we have,” Harris said. “Our goal is to be good neighbors. That’s what we strive to teach each and every day so we would like to model that as well.”
The facilities are at 1440 W. Adams St.
The Skinner Park Advisory Council is a not-for-profit, all-volunteer group dedicated to enhancing the community’s use of local green space including Skinner Park and the Michelle Obama Sports Complex just west of it, and Loomis Street Gardens. The council does not receive Chicago Park District or City funding.
To contact Burnett’s office, call (312) 432-1995. For more information on the Skinner Park Advisory Council, visit https://www.skinnerpark.org/. To contact Whitney Young, call (773) 534-7500. Visit WestLoop.org for more information on that organization.
Editor’s note: Alderman Burnett’s office did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment.