WBEZ reveals Chicago Public Schools secret capital projects list as district seeks $945 million borrowing authorization

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Chicago public radio station WBEZ has published a what is says is a secret Chicago Public Schools capital projects list as the school district says it is asking for authorization to borrow as much as $945 million for capital projects, including the construction of three new high schools and a commitment to have air conditioning in every classroom by the spring of 2017

See WBEZ’s capital projects list here.

One of the new high schools “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,” WBEZ reported.

District officials told WBEZ that 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,” the station reported, noting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district officials “are holding secret meetings with parents and others about some of the building projects.”

Some of those projects are in the proposed $337 million capital budget set to be voted on by the Board of Education on Aug. 24. “CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and district officials have said they plan to announce more projects this fall.” WBEZ says. “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 told WBEZ that 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,” according to the published report.

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, WBEZ says.

Some of the projects listed have low priority rankings, while others have high ones. The report continues:

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.

Meanwhile, CPS issued a list of 61 schools to receive air conditioning in a news release.

“Chicago’s children deserve classrooms that are comfortable, safe and modern – and accelerating our air-conditioning investments is the right thing to do for our students,” Mayor Emanuel said in the statement. “I’m pleased that CPS is investing in much-needed building projects to make sure that all our students can go to class in air-conditioned learning environments that will help them succeed.”

Image: WBEZ published this image of a $19 million Lincoln Elementary School annex announced in 2013, “even though the school shares a border with a school that has plenty of space for additional students.”

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