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Cash-Strapped CPS Greenlights Nearly $300 Million In School Construction Projects

Nine school construction projects that will cost nearly $300 million were greenlighted Wednesday by Chicago’s Board of Education despite unanswered questions and controversy surrounding them. 

The board authorized the city's Public Building Commission to purchase land and start designing new schools in the South Loop, the Read-Dunning neighborhood on the Northwest Side and in the Clearing neighborhood on the Southwest Side. These three schools are estimated to cost about $173 million. 

Also approved were resolutions to work on annexes for six elementary schools, including Ebinger, Esmond, Mount Greenwood, Prussing, Zapata and Byrne. Each annex costs up to about $20 million.

The district’s gaping budget deficit dominated much of Wednesday’s board meeting, but officials said they can still afford these projects because of a new $45 million property tax levy that can only be used for construction. CPS will use this new tax money to pay back more than $800 million in bonds for projects approved on Wednesday, as well as a host of others. One of the projects that moved forward Wednesday will be paid for with city tax increment financing dollars. 

Though some CPS schools are under-utilized, CPS and others argue that new construction is needed in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for listening to the scores of Ebinger parents who came down here worried about the overcrowded school,” said Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward), who has children at Ebinger. Napolitano said another school in his ward, Dirksen Elementary, also needs overcrowding relief.

But critics said several of the construction projects help cement racial segregation in the city. 

Among them are the annexes at Mt. Greenwood Elementary and Esmond in Morgan Park. Both are in the 19th Ward on the far southwestern edge of the city, where the alderman had $20 million to spend on school construction.

The district settled on these annexes after scrapping a complicated plan floated by Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th Ward) that would have provided more space for the overcrowded Mt. Greenwood Elementary, which mostly serves white students, but would have displaced three majority black schools. 

O’Shea said he pushed this complicated scenario to free up money to fix Esmond, an underutilized majority black school. 

But after an uproar from parents of students at the majority black schools, O'Shea backed away from that plan. Then, in private meetings one Saturday in February with parents and staff of Esmond and Mt. Greenwood elementary schools, O’Shea and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced they were giving those two schools annexes, according to community members. 

Scott Smith from 19th Ward Parents United told the board Wednesday that the group is upset about how the board went about choosing to the build these annexes. Smith said decisions about public money shouldn’t be made behind closed doors, arguing that they moves are about scoring political points for Emanuel and O’Shea.

“We refuse to be kept in the dark about these decisions any longer,” Smith said. “We need a comprehensive strategy for the future of our ward’s public schools that has public participation and transparency.” 

Another hot button project is the one in the Read-Dunning neighborhood on the Northwest Side. At a community meeting, Emanuel and Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward) proposed a new school to serve 7th, 8th and 9th grade students who would otherwise go to Taft High School. The proposed facility would be located on vacant land in Dunning. 

This plan included redrawing Taft High School’s boundaries to include three elementary schools with significant white student populations.

After the plan was bashed, Sposato said now he does not know exactly who or what grades the new school will serve. It may be a new high school or a junior high school, he said. 

“I just know that a new school will be going there,” Sposato said. 

A final issue that came up Wednesday was discussion about a possible new high school for the Chinatown area. Students, parents and community residents said that few students go to Phillips, their severely underutilized neighborhood high school. 

Most Chinatown students go to test-based selective enrollment high schools or travel to Kelly High School because it has a Chinese bilingual program, community member David Wu said.

The demand for a new high school for Chinatown students is linked to the building of a new South Loop Elementary School. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) has said she would like the new South Loop Elementary School to expand its attendance area to the south, which might draw students a nearby elementary school, National Teachers Academy. Some NTA parents fear their school will be turned into a high school for Chinatown and South Loop students. 

In other news, CPS Chief Forrest Claypool and Governor Bruce Rauner continued their war of words over who is responsible for CPS' financial crisis. CPS is considering ending the school year three weeks early because it is running out of cash. Claypool said he hopes to decide on an end date for the school year by May 1. The CTU is considering a one-day strike on May 1. CPS went to court last week to try to block it. 

The school board also approved the hiring of Brian Hamer as CPS budget director. Hamer recently resigned as chief of staff for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. He replaces Matt Walter, who was forced to resign after it was discovered that he didn’t meet a requirement that board employees live in Chicago.

Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation.

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