Chicago Public Schools is nearly tripling the amount it plans to spend on school construction this year, bringing the proposed total to $938 million. The district’s new list includes $150 million to build two schools.
CPS will issue bonds to pay for the projects, which will add to the district’s more than $6 billion in outstanding debt.
Laurence Msall, president of the nonpartisan budget watchdog group the Civic Federation, said borrowing money could be disastrous for the district.
“That’s an extraordinary amount of borrowing at a time when the Chicago Public Schools is in danger of further downgrade,” he said.
CPS is moving ahead with capital spending despite shortfalls in CPS’ operating budget. Gov. Bruce Rauner opened a $215 million hole in CPS’ operating budget on Thursday when he vetoed a pension payment of that amount for CPS.
Msall said the budget hole could lead to another credit rating downgrade, which would drive up interest rates on the capital borrowing.
CPS officials insist the capital borrowing will have “no impact on the district’s operating budget” because they plan to pay the money back with revenue from the Capital Improvement Tax, which was part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s record property tax hike passed by City Council last year. The tax levy is expected to generate $45 million each year.
An updated list of new projects released Friday totals just over $600 million. In addition to the $150 million to build two unnamed schools — a high school on the South Side and middle school on the Northwest Side — the list includes $93 million set aside for school additions to address overcrowding. The Chicago Board of Education already approved $338 million in construction projects in August.
State law requires CPS to release its capital plan by May 1, but this year officials posted a short paragraph online that day saying they would only continue current projects. WBEZ obtained a list around that time with about $800 million in planned construction. District spokeswoman Emily Bittner insisted the list was only preliminary and constantly changing.
A station analysis found some of the planned construction is contributing to school segregation by race and class in the city. In two scenarios close to downtown — the South Loop and the West Loop — the district is planning to build new schools or additions less than a mile away from schools that have plenty of room. In both cases, the students in the under-enrolled schools are mostly black and majority low-income.
Of all the construction projects, $344 million will go toward fixing leaky roofs, boilers, and windows; lead abatement and installing air conditioners. But according to CPS’ own most recent estimates, the city’s schools have more than $3.1 billion in those types of needed repairs.
Sarah Rothschild Hainds, a education policy analyst at the Chicago Teachers Union and a member of a state task force that monitors CPS facility planning, took issue with the lack of transparency in the capital budget both this year and in the past.
Rothschild Hainds said the fact that more than a handful of projects are unnamed is very problematic.
“I don’t understand why the board is going to be asked to approve a budget where we won’t even be able to identify where half the money is going,” Rothschild Hainds said. “That, to me, is just absolutely reckless.”
The district will host three public meetings on the capital budget next Monday, December 5 at Bridge Elementary School, Kennedy High School, and National Teachers Academy from 6 pm to 8 p.m. A CPS spokesman said community feedback and market conditions will determine how many of the projects the district can afford to do this year.
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.