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WBEZ Analysis: Chicago School Improvement Spending Targets North Side

Parents and advocates are questioning Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s highly unusual plan to build two new schools and put additions on others in neighborhoods where existing schools are not overcrowded.

The new buildings and additions are all on the city’s North Side or in the center of the city. That’s leading some parents and advocates to wonder if politics, not need, is driving the building decisions. Emanuel is facing re-election next year.

These projects are part of the $989 million school infrastructure improvement plan that Emanuel announced last week. Though the South and West sides of the city serve more students than the North Side, they are being promised fewer dollars for repairs, renovations, or construction, according to a WBEZ analysis of the 2019 Chicago Public Schools capital budget.

Joy Clendenning, a leader in the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, noted that state law requires a transparent planning process, but that many of these projects didn’t appear as part of earlier or the current master plans for buildings.

“It is confusing to us,” she said. “But we really feel like we need to know is how the decisions were made on what to spend where. There seems to be a lack of equity.”

Dirksen Elementary School near O’Hare airport on the Far Northwest Side is the only one of the four schools getting annexes that was over its student capacity last school year. There are more than a dozen overcrowded schools in CPS.

But the three others getting additions — Waters in Lincoln Square, Rogers in West Ridge, and Palmer in Albany Park — are listed as “efficient” by the school district, meaning it considers the school to have about the right amount of students for its building. Also, all three schools have nearby schools with space for more students.

In addition, a new elementary school is being built in Belmont Cragin, a community area where no school is officially overcrowded and a few seem to have room for hundreds of additional students.

Jessica Estrada, an education organizer for the organization Communities United, said parent leaders in the Northwest Side neighborhood do not support the plan. They are worried that the new school will drain students from existing ones, she said.

Estrada added the decision is especially puzzling considering some schools on the Northwest Side have been fighting for annexes, but have yet to get one. Meanwhile, she knows of no demands in Belmont-Cragin for a brand new school.

The West Loop is getting a high school, though nearby high schools are underutilized and struggling to attract students.

Chicago Public Schools officials call the new buildings and additions “proactive steps” to stay ahead of population shifts. They say that community groups and local leaders asked for the new West Loop high school and Belmont Cragin elementary school. They also note that the elementary schools are projected to be overcrowded in the future if they don’t get more space. 

"Meeting the diverse needs of every neighborhood is at the heart of our capital investments,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement.

Bolton pointed out that schools on the South and West sides are benefitting from the capital plan. They are getting science labs, upgrades to their technology systems, and renovations to accommodate full-day preschool for 4 year olds. The school district has yet to determine how much these projects will cost.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson has said that spreading these smaller projects across the schools is part of the district’s equity efforts.

*NOTE: Includes $634 million of the $989 million 2019 capital plan. CPS has not specified projects or pricetags for $355 million. CPS has said some of that $355 will be spent on preschool expansion, science labs and modernizing technology, but has yet to specify how much will be spent at each school.

*NOTE: The analysis looks at the planned spending of $490 million of the $989 million 2019 capital plan. It does not include does not include $144 million to build two new schools as there are not yet students enrolled. Also, CPS has not specified projects or pricetags for $355 million. CPS has said some of that $355 will be spent on preschool expansion, science labs and modernizing technology, but has yet to specify how much will be spent at each school.

CPS also is building a new high school on the Southwest Side to replace Hancock, a selective enrollment high school.

Some have pointed out that the new construction on the North Side and center of the city are located in areas where aldermen are friendly to Emanuel.

That’s one reason why Ald. Sue Garza (10th Ward) was so happy to see one of the schools in her area on the far Southeast Side on the list. She is often a critic of the mayor.

After several years of complaining by teachers, parents, and most recently, a dedicated group of students, Washington High School on the Far Southeast Side is getting a $15.6 million new roof. Students had said that when it rained, holes created waterfalls throughout the school.

“It is like Christmas in July,” Garza said.

But she said this investment does not cancel out the fact that other schools in her area are in critical need of repair and some need relief for overcrowding. She said there’s one school that was built as a temporary structure to last 10 years, but has been in use for 50 years.

Across the school district, there are more than $3 billion of repairs needed, according to the most recent assessments done by CPS. Emanuel’s budget sets aside about $366 million to make those repairs.

Garza said the lack of transparency and accountability around infrastructure spending results in disparities between schools. She said one can easily see this when looking at schools in her area compared to those on the North side.

“It is like apples and oranges,” she said.

CPS will hold hearings on the plan on July 19. It is expected to be considered at the July Board of Education meeting.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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