The Second Lives Of 'Stuff' In Chicago Public Schools

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In 2013, the Chicago Public Schools decided to close some 50 schools to save money and consolidate resources. In recent months, the system has been emptying out those buildings, creating a giant collection of reusable materials, from textbooks to Bunsen burners, to desks and chairs. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Linda Lutton takes a look at all the stuff that is getting reused.


Over the past six months, Chicago has been emptying out dozens of school buildings. The city voted to close 50 schools last spring. The district said it needed to concentrate students in fewer buildings so resources wouldn't be spread so thin.

Reporter Linda Lutton, from member station WBEZ, has been tracking what's happened to the things that used to fill those schools.


LINDA LUTTON, BYLINE: All through the fall and into the winter, Chicago Public Schools has been packing, sorting and moving literally tons of stuff from the closed schools.


LUTTON: What sort of stuff? Desks, chairs, books, yes. But also...

TOM TYRRELL: Puzzles, globes of the world.

LUTTON: Rubber dinosaurs.

TYRRELL: Yeah, dinosaurs.

LUTTON: That's Tom Tyrrell, a former Marine Corps colonel, who's overseeing the school closings for Chicago Public Schools. We're at one of the closed schools, Von Humboldt Elementary, a 130-year-old, four-story building that takes up half a city block. It is now filled with stuff from the rest of the closed schools. The gymnasium looks like a flea market, everything laid out on long tables, boxes stacked nearly to the basketball nets.

TYRRELL: There's scales, goggles, there are science kits - we have them somewhere.

LUTTON: When you move a house, you pack it up room-by-room. To move 50 schools, the logistics company the school district hired is packing by category. It's treating a handful of the closed schools like warehouses, sending furniture to one, library books to another, and all the instructional materials are here at Von Humboldt.

Wow, look at this hallway.

In the school's auditorium, boxes of reference books sit like obedient children on the theater chairs. On the stage, towers of encyclopedias form a little skyline. Tyrrell says the goal is to get all of this into an online catalog and let the schools place orders.

There's kind of a book smell to everything. A hundred and thirty-nine dollar price tag in this dictionary.

TYRRELL: And that's where we get to the number of millions and millions of dollars in value that we now don't have to spend with, you know, our normal booksellers 'cause we've got them and these will be distributed for free to the schools.

LUTTON: Tyrell estimates there are some 700,000 books here. I'm going to go look at the encyclopedias over here. The New Book of Knowledge Encyclopedias. I think I used these as a kid. Copyright 1988. Yep, Ronald Reagan is president. There's still a Soviet Union. Tyrrell admits this book may not be headed back to a Chicago school. He says what can't be used in the district will be sold or given away.

Teachers have had their own window into this process. Some, like Vince Manobianco, describe being allowed to go back into their closed schools at the end of summer to get supplies and furniture. Manobianco was the math and gym teacher at Lafayette Elementary before the 120-year-old school was shut down.

VINCE MANOBIANCO: They let us go in and kind of do this mad dash, grab what you can. There were people in there already with big moving vans and trucks.

LUTTON: Manobianco says it was difficult seeing his school torn apart. Teachers were walking on books, students' old desks and chairs were tossed into a giant heap.

MANOBIANCO: Teachers were crying 'cause it was - we were going back into this building. And the last time we had been in it, the rooms were set up. It was a very well-functioning school. And then the next time you walk in, you were evicted - is basically what it looked like.


LUTTON: Tyrrell, the district official, says nothing of value is being thrown away. Even a chair leg will be sold for scrap, he says.

The cost to move everything, $31 million, three times what an initial contract spelled out. Tyrrell says the district just underestimated how much stuff there was in the schools. Movers even found a pickup truck in one; assembled in a shop class, probably. It's still there. No one can figure out how to get it out.

Chicago has now cleaned out some 40 schools. I visited one. Teachers' last instructions were still written on blackboards but there wasn't a piece of chalk or an eraser left.

For NPR News, I'm Linda Lutton.

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