Openness pledged on capital spending

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As the School Board’s Capital Improvement Plan heads into its third year, Reform Board officials are promising to open the planning process up for greater public input and accountability. Activists who have monitored the board’s work to date say they are “cautiously optimistic” that the promises will be kept.

Officials say they will publish a budget and planning document in early March that will include the following information:

A sketch of each school’s repair and construction needs.

A one-year budget, showing the work that officials plan to undertake, the amount they expect to spend, and where the money would come from.

A five-year plan, showing the work they expect to undertake in future years, with rough schedules and cost estimates; this plan may include projects that are not yet funded.

An expenditure report, showing all work done to date and the costs.

None of this information was available last year, when parents and administrators from many schools came to public hearings asking why their buildings, some of which were in dire need of repair, were not scheduled for work. Board officials later acknowledged they were not applying any specific criteria in making their spending decisions. (See Catalyst April and June, 1997.)

The change is “extremely significant,” says Jacqueline Leavy, director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a non-profit organization that monitors public works spending in Chicago. “It will finally give us a level playing field to debate the priorities and to hold the board accountable.”

“We appreciate that you can’t fix everything at once,” she adds. “We believe that citizens have a strong sense of fair play.”

Leavy says she’s optimistic that the board will come through. “Usually if they’re not gonna do something, you get a signal sooner than now,” she explains. “When we’ve tried to do this at City Hall and the CTA, we get the cold shoulder.”

Last spring, Operations Chief Tim Martin told Catalyst he preferred not to use precious resources on studies. But in December, he told the board’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Capital Improvements that a team of architects and engineers was working on a new, comprehensive survey of all buildings that had not been recently renovated.

Public hearings are to be held April and early May, with School Board adoption of a plan to follow in late May.

The school board has raised about $1.25 billion in the last two years for capital improvements, most of it through bond sales, according to John Holden, public information officer for the board’s operations department. With help from the city, state and federal governments, and by refinancing some existing bonds, Holden says officials hope to raise another $800 million or so in the next few years. The exact amount will depend on interest rates and on negotiations with state and government agencies.

That brings the total to around $2 billion, which still leaves the School Board short of the total cost for renovating buildings and building new ones to relieve overcrowding. Several years ago, that figure was put at $3 billion.

To date, the board has spent roughly $466 million on capital projects, Holden says, and another $378.5 million in construction and repair contracts have been signed.