Everyone wins, some win more

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However, a handful of big-ticket items totaling roughly $100 million raises questions about priorities.

Chief among those projects is a $45 million magnet high school that may be the most expensive new school, on a per-student basis, in the state. Board officials hope that the new North Side College Prep, located in Lincoln Square, will lure families who would otherwise leave Chicago’s public schools for private, parochial or suburban alternatives. They plan to open five more schools like North Side by the year 2001, some of them in rehabbed existing structures. In addition, the board’s capital dollars are being used to support the re-development of Cabrini-Green and to expand some elementary magnet schools.

Meanwhile, the board does not have enough money to repair all existing schools and relieve overcrowding.

Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education, credits the board with having “very responsibly addressed the repair needs of most of the schools in the system.” But she says that by spreading the money around, the board also has given itself political cover to indulge in projects that, from her perspective, are questionable. Schools like North Side College Prep, she says, “are—let’s be honest—taking money away from repairs that could be made to schools in poor and minority neighborhoods.”

Supporters of the expanded magnet school program argue that it will pay for itself, in effect, by bolstering the city’s property tax base.

Matt McDermott, a policy analyst for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, agrees that the goal of retaining the middle class has merit, but he thinks the board is tilting too far in that direction.

“I’m not completely opposed to this,” he says. “I suppose there are some good reasons to have some flagship schools, but the cost has to be looked at, especially in light of [the board] potentially reaching their limit for capital spending. My general reaction would be that, it would be more important to save those dollars, even though they’re only 10 percent or so of the budget, for more basic needs, like schools that are falling apart, overcrowded or full of lead paint.”

“I think they’re all priorities,” says Jim Lewis, vice president for research and planning at the Chicago Urban League. “I can’t make a statement about how those things should be weighed against each other.”

Making basic repairs and relieving overcrowding are important, he explains, but so is promoting economically and racially mixed schools. “As long as [magnet programs] don’t become tools for any particular community, but remain tools for a desegregated school system, we’re completely for it,” he says.

In the case of two magnet high schools, McDermott and others say that the equity problem is compounded by the fact that college-prep programs are displacing vocational education programs that served lower-income students. In the South Loop, the office services program is being phased out of Jones Commercial High School to make room for a college-prep magnet. In the redeveloping Cabrini-Green area, Near North Career Magnet High School is being razed and replaced with a college-prep magnet that is closer to the Gold Coast.

Here are the details of the Catalyst analysis.

BROAD-BASED EQUITY Catalyst’s analysis of the board’s spending on capital improvements shows that about $1.5 billion, roughly 75 percent, is being used to rescue crumbling buildings and put up new ones to relieve overcrowding. About $390 million, or roughly 20 percent, is going to a grab-bag of extras, including new and expanded magnet schools, new science labs for high schools, playlots for elementary schools and office buildout for the School Board’s new downtown headquarters. About $97 million, roughly 5 percent, is going for program administration.

Catalyst’sanalysis of the degree to which school repair needs are being met found broad-based equity among various types of schools. Predominantly black schools, predominantly Latino schools and predominantly low-income schools all have about the same percentage of their repair needs being met as do middle-class schools and schools that enroll relatively high percentages of white students.

Catalyst’s ward-by-ward analysis of spending on repairs, overcrowding and extras shows no special preference for the wards of influential aldermen. In every spending category, politically influential or affluent wards were as likely to show up on a list of the 10 worst-funded wards as they were on a list of the 10 best-funded wards. For example, the least-funded wards include two of the most politically potent wards in the city: the 13th, home to Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and state Democratic Party chair, and the 19th, home to former Illinois Senate President Thomas Hynes, Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan and schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. (See map on page 6.)

“There’s no conscious attempt to leave anyone out,” acknowledges Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. “This is an administration that prides itself on being responsive, and if someone cries out, they are going to get a response that’s at least a step in the right direction.”

“But we still have to be concerned with: Is anybody falling between the cracks?” she continues. “A hundred and sixty-five schools testified at public hearings this spring, and that’s a lot of folks who stayed home. Some may have been satisfied, but there are folks we need to reach, who need to be convinced that it’s worth their while to come up and say, ‘This is what’s wrong with my kids’ school, and it must be addressed.'”

Indeed, while Catalyst’s analyses of the board’s numbers showed a pattern of overall equity, a closer look at some projects indicates that the board’s determination of need sometimes reflects community pressure as much as physical conditions.

For example, the board’s capital budget book, includes no projects for Morse Elementary in Humboldt Park even though the school has a buckling wall, a lunchroom with peeling lead paint on the ceiling, and windows that are not secure. Recently, though, the board has committed to fixing the lunchroom and is now looking into a full rehab for Morse. (For details, see story.) Since no price tag has been put on these projects, Morse’s needs are not part of Catalyst’s calculations.

In contrast, the capital budget book does include a $18.7 million plan to build a new building for Inter-American Magnet School, now located in Lake View. This project wasn’t on the board’s radar when it launched its capital improvement program in 1996. However, top organizers and staffers from several citywide policy and advocacy groups send their children to Inter-American, and they made sure the school turned out in force for public hearings in 1997. Parents came by the busloads, waving signs and banners.

Inter-American’s spokesperson was Adela Coronado-Greeley, a founder of the dual-language school and former Board of Education member. When she was on the board, Greeley testified, she had purposefully refrained from advocating for Inter-American “because I knew there were other schools that needed more” and were not being helped. Only when she saw schools with less need than Inter-American getting fixed did she decide the time had come to speak up.

No money has been lined up for the new building, a fact that put its ward, the 44th, near the bottom of Catalyst’s list showing the degree to which need is being met. Of the $30.9 million in projects outlined for the 44th Ward, $7.7 million, or 25 percent, have been funded. Three- quarters of that discrepancy is due to Inter-American.

Ald. Bernie Hansen was surprised and none too pleased to learn of his ward’s standing. “All I know is that Nettlehorst is done, Blaine is done, Hawthorne is done, LeMoyne is done, and there’s going to be a new Inter-American Magnet School, wherever that’s going to be,” he says. “And I don’t know why you’d think we were last, since almost all the schools I have are done already. If the school councils and the principals were unhappy, they’d be over to see me.”

Without Inter-American, Hansen’s ward would have landed about in the middle of Catalyst’s list.

BIG-TICKET ITEMS Southwest suburban Naperville drew gasps last year when it opened a $62 million high school, Neuqua Valley. However, on a per-student basis, Neuqua Valley is less than half as expensive as North Side College Prep, which is scheduled to open next September at Bryn Mawr and Kedzie. Built for 3,000 students, Neuqua’s per-student cost is about $20,000. Designed for 1,000, the $45 million North Side will cost about $45,000 per student.

Chicago school officials attribute the difference to economies of scale and unique construction challenges. “You’ve got to look at the fixed costs,” says Chief Operating Officer Tim Martin. “You’ve got to have a gym, an auditorium, a swimming pool. Once you’ve built a kitchen, it doesn’t matter if you cook 3,000 meals in it or 1,000.”

North Side’s location on the bank of the Chicago River also increased costs, he says. The foundation needed special reinforcement, and construction crews had to take care not to disrupt sewer lines that feed into the river. He adds that the board had hoped to offset construction costs by getting the land, formerly owned by the Cook County Water Reclamation District, for free. But he says the district was policy-bound to charge a fair price for it.

Similarly, the Region 2 College Prep High School, scheduled to open in the year 2000 at the corner of Oak and Wells streets, has a higher per-student cost than Nequa. With a capacity of 1,000 and a price tag of $30 million, its per-pupil cost is $30,000.

Region 2 College Prep is located in the Cabrini-Green area tax-increment financing district (TIF), which gets to keep gains in local property tax revenues for public improvements and other development incentives within its boundaries. School officials say they will tap those funds to help build Region 2 College Prep and other new schools in the TIF district. They say they also will use proceeds of the sale of the land under the nearby Near North Career Magnet High School, which is to be razed to make way for private development.

Members of Near North’s local school council say the board already is dismantling school programs and sidestepping the council. Last spring, when Principal Faye Grays’s contract expired, the board refused to ratify the contract of the LSC’s choice for a replacement, Ronald Gibbs. Gibbs now leads the school on an interim basis. This fall, officials disbanded the school’s football team, offering flag football instead. When council members took issue with the board’s choice for “transition manager,” Reginald Brown, a politically-connected former principal of Chicago Vocational High School, the board named him as the school’s probation manager instead.

“We have to fight for everything that should come easily,” says Clara Smith, who chairs the Near North LSC.

Parents and community members at the school also contend board officials have given them questionable information. Several say they’ve been told that Near North’s building has to be replaced because it has structural problems and is sinking into the ground. Smith asks, “If the land the school is on is sinking, wouldn’t the houses across the street be sinking too?”

Dion Smith, chief of staff in the board’s Operations Department, says that, to the best of his knowledge, Near North is not structurally unsound. It is being replaced, he says, because “it is not a well-designed building.”

Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney says the board is “making an investment in those students who are there now [by] committing to keeping the school open through 2001 for them.” She adds, “We will make sure that any students who qualify can certainly go to the new school.”

Judging by Near North’s test scores, few of its students would qualify for the new Region 2 High, which will require above-average scores for admission. In 1997, which marked a seven-year high for Near North’s scores on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency, fewer than 15 percent of the students scored at or above national norms.

Elsewhere in the Cabrini-Green area, the Ferguson Child-Parent Center has been torn down and rebuilt several blocks away. Its old site now sports a parking lot for the recently opened Dominick’s at Clybourn and Division. Byrd and Jenner elementary schools also are slated for replacement.

These projects, along with the new high school, make Ald. Walter Burnett’s 27th Ward one of the neediest wards in the city, by the board’s definitions. About $101 million in rehab and overcrowding-relief projects are listed for the ward, with $59 million of them funded.

OTHER DEVELOPMENT-RELATED PROJECTS In the South Loop, where gentrification is spreading rapidly, one of the system’s most successful vocational education programs is being phased out for a college-prep program. For decades, students from high schools across the city transferred to Jones Commercial after their sophomore year to prepare for office jobs at Loop companies. The school’s close proximity facilitated an extensive work experience program.

Buckney, who added college-prep courses while she was principal at Jones, says the area’s changing residential demographics demand a new program. “It was the logical thing to do, to convert a two-year school in a growing area to a four-year school. … Students will still be able to choose a business style program, but not for secretarial jobs anymore.”

The board’s Capital Improvement Plan lists an unfunded $15 million addition to Jones, and officials have talked about using land several doors south that is occupied by the Pacific Garden Mission. Officials say they are looking at alternative sites as well. “We’re exploring options right now,” says CEO Vallas.

At both Jones and Near North, teachers, parents and students have protested the board’s plans, and their travails have been chronicled in a series of articles in Substance, a muckraking, teacher-produced monthly newspaper. Stories headlined “Jones fights back!” and “Near North’s slow death” have painted the board’s action as straightforward cases of officials pushing out the schools’ working-class constituencies in order to encourage gentrification in the schools’ lakefront neighborhoods.

Vallas has denied that the new magnet high schools are intended to lure the affluent. However, when Schools and Regions Chief Blondean Davis helped interview finalists for the principal’s job at North Side College Prep, her first question to each finalist was: “What would you do to recruit students who would otherwise go to private or parochial schools?”

In a redevelopment area on the Near West Side, Riis Elementary recently saw its rehab plans disappear. Riis has a faulty heating system and drafty windows, which force some students to wear their coats to class during winter. Board officials had scheduled a $2 million rehab for the school in 1997-98, but the board quietly scrapped it last summer. Principal Susan Milojevic didn’t learn of the cancellation until a reporter told her of it.

Salazar jittery

Riis sits amid the ABLA homes, a public housing complex that is being replaced with mixed-income housing. As a result, the school’s enrollment has dropped. Board officials now say they are considering closing the school and sending the students elsewhere, rather than investing in repairs.

In the Cabrini-Green area, another school has gotten the jitters. Salazar Bilingual Academy, which sits across the street from the site of the new Region 2 High School, recently lost its teachers’ parking lot with dizzying speed.

According to Local School Council Chair Ricardo Gomez, the principal got a call on a Friday afternoon in late August from David Tkak, the mayor’s point person for Near North redevelopment, says Gomez.

Tkak was calling to say that over the weekend city bulldozers would convert the parking lot into an alley for town homes behind the school. When the school objected, the job was put off, but not for long.

On Sept. 23, the Reform Board passed a resolution selling the parking lot to the City of Chicago for $1. On Sept. 26, the bulldozers came and did the job.

“We’re starting to feel like they’re just inching us out,” says Gomez. “Like we could show up on Friday afternoon and they could say, ‘You guys have to get out, because on Monday, the mayor’s going to be using it for his headquarters.'”