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Chicago Keeps Some School Construction Plans Under Wraps

Chicago Public Schools is struggling with debt and has dozens of high schools with space for more students. In spite of that, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leaders are contemplating building three new high schools in the coming years. 

One would be in the Reed-Dunning neighborhood on the Northwest Side, one would be in the Loop and focused on design, and another one would be in Englewood, a South Side community with several severely under-enrolled high schools. 

Those are some of the projects on a secret list WBEZ obtained this past spring. 

District officials say the list is preliminary and changing often. If construction is okayed and set in motion this fall, some of these new schools should be ready to open in 2018. That would be when Emanuel would be gearing up for re-election, should he decide to run again. 

WBEZ is making this list public now because the district announced it was asking for authorization to borrow up to $945 million for capital projects. Several of the projects on the list have already been announced, but Emanuel and district officials are holding secret meetings with parents and others about some of the building projects. 

Some of those projects showed up in the proposed $337 million capital budget set to be voted on by the Board of Education on Wednesday. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and district officials have said they plan to announce more projects this fall. The district will pay back those construction bonds with the new $45 million capital improvement tax that the City Council gave CPS permission to levy this spring. 

CPS Treasurer Jennie Huang Bennett said the district is not announcing all the planned capital projects now because it first wants to see how much investors will back in bonds. “We don’t know what we will be able to fund,” she said. “There are unlimited capital needs, you know.” 

The list obtained by WBEZ contains $800 million worth of projects, including air conditioning, new roofs and technology upgrades. But the most interesting and perhaps controversial projects are the new schools and annexes. Some of the projects are surprises, such as a new Englewood High School. Another preliminary project would add new space for a seventh and eighth grade at Chicago Agricultural High School in Beverly. 

Also potentially in the works are three new preschool centers in areas where elementary schools are overcrowded. It is unclear how projects are chosen. The list obtained by WBEZ does show the priority ranking for some of the repairs. 

Yet among the projects set to be done are some that have low priority rankings, while others have high ones. Emanuel and Claypool are planning on making this huge capital investment when the district is in the midst of approving an upgraded master facilities plan. 

That master facilities plan is required by state law. Sarah Hainds, a member of a state task force on Chicago educational facilities, who’s also with the Chicago Teachers Union, said the district doesn’t appear to take the master facilities plan seriously. 

She spoke at a capital budget hearing this week. 

“Other cities also have robust public participation in the plan,” she said. 

The district may be holding off on announcing construction plans, as it’s in the midst of teacher contract negotiations. 

Yet the way the district has rolled out capital plans skirts state law, which requires a May 1 publication of a capital plan.

Becky Vevea contributed to this report. Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea are Education reporters for WBEZ. Follow them at @wbezeducation.

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