On paper, the proposal is Public Act 102-0017, a “vertical” and “regional” project stuffed into the state’s capital spending bill with a $25 million price tag.
In reality, the proposal is hope.
A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative, headquartered in a low-slung building in Burbank with smaller locations scattered throughout the southwest suburbs, is a school cooperative that works with 11 districts to provide education, therapy and care – hope – to about 700 students ages 3-22 who have fragile, complex cognitive and physical challenges.
Most of the students require constant supervision. Some have been diagnosed with autism. Some are nonverbal. Some have traumatic brain injuries. Some cannot walk or stand on their own. Their progress is marked by simple goals – pushing a button on a remote control, clapping their hands, washing a dish. They are our most vulnerable.
At A.E.R.O., they climb off buses for summer school and head to classrooms where they receive therapies for speech and movement and interact with patient, smiling teachers. But their school building isn’t designed for them. The classrooms are small and cramped. Many of the kids need to move around. To sit on a therapy ball. To pace. To deal with their anxieties.
They need a new school where they can have space for their wheelchairs, a gymnasium, a playground, a lunchroom and soft lighting. The teachers and aides who maneuver around desks and sit at makeshift cubicles need room, too.
Led by Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, lawmakers in Springfield approved $25 million total in the last two rounds of capital spending for a new facility that would be built on the old Queen of Peace grounds, an all-girls Catholic high school that closed in 2017. Taxpayers from this middle-class community, through those 11 school districts, have committed another $25 million.
All the project needs now is Gov. JB Pritzker.
James Gunnell, executive director of the cooperative, has been working on the concept of getting all the kids, including those in an emotionally and behaviorally challenged group that A.E.R.O. serves, under one roof for years. He’s worried that delays in state funding could frustrate local taxpayers and deflate enthusiasm for the project.
While the money has been appropriated on paper, twice, it’s up to Pritzker to decide which projects in the capital bill actually get the spigot turned on. This one should be at the top of the list. If the money flows, groundbreaking could begin this fall with a fall 2023 opening date.
It’s not right that the state spends capital dollars on pickleball courts and dog parks when projects like this one are waiting. Capital bills get stuffed with pork and pet projects that then compete against worthy projects like this one. There should be no competition.
Will you release the money, Governor?
– Chicago Tribune