CPS quietly lowers its estimated cost savings from closing 54 schools

The school district had told the public that closing 54 schools would save $560 million over 10 years in avoided capital expenses. After questions from WBEZ, it now says that number is $438 million.

May 2, 2013

Chicago’s school district will not be saving as much by closing 54 schools as it originally told the public.

When it announced the closings, Chicago Public Schools said it would save $560 million in capital expenses over the next 10 years by closing schools and avoiding repairs and upgrades on those buildings.

Now, the district is revising that cost savings number downward. It says it was off by $122 million, or 20 percent. The real 10-year cost savings figure is $437.8 million, CPS now says.

It made the correction on page 36 of a 457-page document that lays out the district’s facilities plan for the next decade.

Chicago Public Schools says it made an “honest mistake” when adding numbers, and had plugged in some schools that didn’t belong there. But the overall cost savings is also being revised downward because schools that had not been assessed for years are getting thorough capital-needs reviews.

CPS had made estimates of how much it would take to repair and upgrade individual school buildings—and thus, how much it could save by closing those buildings. A CPS official said originally the district budgeted in central air conditioning to cost estimates. That's been switched to window units.

Parents, activists, and even aldermen have complained that the district’s estimated cost for fixing their schools is inflated. Parents at Trumbull Elementary in Edgewater, for instance, got notes home in March saying it would cost $16.3 million to repair and upgrade their school. It was one of the reasons listed for closing the school.

“The amount that is indicated is significantly higher than we would actually spend if in fact you were going to keep that school open and invest,” Alderman Patrick O'Connor said at an April 9 public meeting on the proposed closing of Trumbull.  “Clearly, if you wanted to make it top of the line, $16 million would be a nice investment.  But if you just wish to maintain the school and keep it open, you’re more in the area of $4 or $5 (million),” O’Connor said.

CPS provided WBEZ data showing it now believes the cost to update Trumbull is $10.99 million. Others schools' estimates also dropped.

CPS officials say they discovered their mistakes after repeated questions from WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago Magazine about how capital cost-savings were calculated.

A top CPS official said it’s “intuitive” that closing buildings will save money. “It’s clearly something that will save us money. That’s indisputable,” he said. The district’s press office allowed reporters to speak with him only on background, without printing his name.

The official said it’s not overly important whether the savings from “avoided” capital costs are $560 million or $438 million, because the amounts that matter are the school-by-school savings.  He said board members, who are slated to vote May 22 on the proposed school closings, will be briefed on updated numbers.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation