Watchdogs applaud, still want details

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Watchdogs of the Reform Board’s capital improvement program are generous in their praise of Mayor Richard M. Daley for deciding to sell city bonds to keep school construction going. But they say they will continue pressing for more accountability in the school system’s $1.4 billion capital improvement program.

“We have to commend the city and the Chicago public schools for some tremendous creativity here,” says Jacqueline Leavy, director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group and a member of the School Reform Board’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee on Capital Improvements.

Sylvia Puente, research director for the Latino Institute and a Blue Ribbon Committee member, agrees, calling the arrangement “historically significant.”

Under the plan, the city will sell $800 million in bonds and forward the proceeds to the school system, which has reached the limit on bonds it can sell without a referendum. Without the new sale, the Reform Board would have had only about half the money needed to cover the $1.4 billion in projects it has outlined.

About half the money is going for new construction, according to Operations Chief Tim Martin. Giacomo Mancuso, manager for planning and demographics, says that will take care “of the most severe overcrowding, but it doesn’t resolve [overcrowding] entirely.” Priority has gone to schools whose enrollments are more than 100 percent of capacity. “Are we putting schools in the right place?” he asks. “My opinion is that there is no doubt whatsoever.”

The remainder of the capital money is going for major renovations, improved access for students with disabilities, Internet connections, new athletic fields, additional science labs and additional lead and asbestos abatement.

“The question now becomes timing and implementation and [proceeding] in a cost-effective way,” says Leavy.

“In terms of accountability,” says Puente, “they need to make clear at set points the extent to which major goals have been met. For example, at the end of year one, at the end of 18 months: To what extent has overcrowding been relieved? To what extent have life-safety issues been mitigated? What we get is piecemeal. No one has brought the information together.

Leavy has similar questions: “We need a better fix on, for example, how many schools still need lead and asbestos abatement. Where are we with ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] compliance? The data are probably there but haven’t been presented in a clear or direct manner.

What about high schools?

“Then there is the element that is not even addressed in the [capital improvement plan] books: high school capacity and modernization,” she continues. “Some major capital renovation is happening at some of the high schools, but we’re not talking systematically yet about how much more high school capacity we need and whether we’re designing high school facilities and updates in a way that will meet the educational needs of the kids.”

Martin says the board anticipates growing high school enrollment and has begun to think about how to handle it. “One, we’re offering a better quality of education, so some of these kids won’t be moving to the suburbs. Two, it’s become expensive to send kids to parochial schools. Third, in terms of sheer demographics, the population is increasing in Chicago. What we’re trying to do right now is get a new high school facility in each region in anticipation of that growth. We hope that will happen in the next two to four years. Will that be enough? I don’t know yet.”

Leavy also notes that even with the financial assist from the city, the school system won’t come close to meeting all its capital needs, which a 1994 report pegged at more than $3 billion. Leavy estimates that the system’s booming enrollment likely has pushed the total close to $4.5 billion.

At the Sept. 3 meeting of the Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee, Leavy won support for creation of a work plan subcommittee to monitor developments more closely and promote clear, timely communication with the public. She and Decatur LSC member Charles Williams will co-chair the group.

At the same meeting, Martin reported that the administration is considering how to present monthly project updates on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the administration is following through on promises it made to the committee in June. According to operations media manager Bevona Smith, letters announcing upcoming projects were mailed to schools Sept. 4; letters announcing projects that had entered the design phase were mailed to schools the week of Sept. 8; brochures describing the capital improvement plan will be distributed to schools in early October; and a “bill of rights” construction manual for principals will be distributed by mid-October.