Building plan hinges on TIFs

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Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ambitious $1 billion plan to build 24 new schools and overhaul three others inched forward in November when aldermen asked the City Council’s finance committee to consider a bond package worth up to $800 million.

For its part, Chicago Public Schools recently borrowed an extra $75 million—the first of its $400 million commitment—atop its usual construction bonds.

The finance committee is expected to vote on the bond package in December. If approved, the package would then go for a full council vote.

While dollars begin to materialize, the mayor and school officials are trying to satisfy aldermen who raised objections to the city’s source of backing funds: tax increment financing districts (TIFs). At a recent City Council education committee hearing, some aldermen raised strong objections to the plan, fearing their homegrown TIF dollars will be hijacked to pay for schools outside their communities.

“We don’t mind helping to get schools built, but we want our children to have the opportunity to go to them,” says Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. TIF districts in Burnett’s Near West Side ward will dish out an estimated $170 million to build replacement schools for Westinghouse High and Skinner Elementary, as well as a new high school in Garfield Park that will replicate the curriculum at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Only one of those schools, Skinner, is in Burnett’s ward.

Burnett, one of the aldermen to voice frustration over the use of TIF funds, has changed his outlook after follow-up meetings with CPS officials.

Burnett now says school officials are promising to set aside seats at Skinner and Westinghouse for students from his community. (Skinner is slated to become a magnet school; Westinghouse is expected to split into vocational and college prep programs.)

The admissions policy for the new agricultural high school remains unclear. But Burnett—who says aldermen are used to Daley announcing “big ideas” with little input from them—says it’s just a matter of “working out the kinks.”

Meanwhile, work is expected to begin soon on the demolition of the old Skinner and the construction of the long-delayed replacement of Langston Hughes Elementary School in Roseland and of Miles Davis Elementary School in West Englewood, says CPS spokesman Michael Vaughn.

A clearer picture—next year

The mayor’s big idea—dubbed “Modern Schools Across Chicago”—was announced in June. Soon after, the plan was criticized by the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which issued a report calling for increased transparency about the plan and questioning whether TIF districts could handle the burden.

“It’s all deliberately vague,” says Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the budget group, noting the plan conveniently lacks details just as the mayoral election heats up. The “raiding” of TIF funds, she adds, will force struggling communities to choose between new schools and other critical projects.

Leavy and other critics say that thanks to a weak oversight system, the mayor has virtually unchecked control over TIF funds. With more than 140 districts currently on the books, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars in construction contracts and other services at his disposal, she adds.

Her group advocates a concerted political effort to force the state, which has paid nothing for three years, to fund school construction. TIFs, says Leavy, were not designed to pay outright for new schools; rather, they should be reserved for other needed economic development, like job training and business incentives.

While the specifics of the Modern Schools TIF scheme are still murky, the City Council finance committee has estimated the costs for construction and debt service for each project. Dana Levenson, the city’s chief financial officer, promises a clearer picture when a bond prospectus for investors is released in January.

Neighborhood Capital Budget Group says the district should assemble a long-range capital planning document that clearly shows spending priorities and construction schedules. The group’s report shows that since 1996, more than $57 million was spent on schools that will be replaced under Modern Schools—spending that could have been avoided with better planning.

“That shows a lack of vision,” says Leavy.

Vaughn argues that those dollars were needed to keep kids “safe, warm and dry” through regular building maintenance.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or e-mail myers@catalyst-chicago.org.