Politics of school construction

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The city and school district are charging ahead with Mayor Richard Daley’s $1 billion Modern Schools construction plan.

More than $400 million in bonds has been issued, and construction has begun on two schools: a $35 million replacement of Miles Davis Elementary in West Englewood, scheduled to open in fall 2008; and a $103 million replacement for Westinghouse High in Humboldt Park projected to open in fall 2009. All three of the plan’s major renovation projects—$30 million efforts at Mather, Austin and Collins high schools—are underway.

Yet, in the absence of clear information from the district on how it prioritizes capital projects, some communities coping with overcrowding or substandard buildings are wondering why their schools failed to make the Modern Schools list. That list includes a new school in the trendy Lakeshore East development in the high-rise district just north of Millennium Park, which is slated to get a significant infusion of cash from the project’s developer.

According to a June 2006 report by the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a now-shuttered watchdog organization that had lobbied for a comprehensive school capital plan, at least nine schools that had been promised new buildings got nothing under Modern Schools. (Byrd, one of the nine, has since been closed.) Meanwhile, CPS plans to house Renaissance schools in 15 of the 24 new schools included in the mayor’s plan.

Telpochcalli Elementary in Little Village was not among the schools that were promised new buildings, but the school community nevertheless feels slighted. Principal Tamara Witzl walks the halls amidst stacks of art supplies, furniture and even a disassembled, makeshift stage as she points out the need for storage, better art and music rooms, playground space and access to a gym, lunchroom and auditorium of their own. The school shares these facilities with neighboring Saucedo Elementary.

With help from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s City Design Center, the school drafted preliminary plans for a new building in 2003. Community leaders say the district’s former operations chief, Sean Murphy, showed interest in 2005, although no firm promise to follow through was made.

 

Private help for Ogden

Suspicious that some schools that made the Modern Schools cut did not need new facilities as badly as Telpochcalli, a group of community advocates toured Ogden Elementary on the Near North Side, which is slated to get a new building. They say the school is in good working condition.

A district spokesman says Ogden was chosen because of overcrowding, and enrollment is, in fact, at 135 percent of capacity; teachers and support staff use converted closet space for offices. The school takes in 45 students as part of its International Baccalaureate prep magnet program, and about 15 to 20 other students from outside its boundaries, which contributes to the problem. Among other issues: an aging boiler and substandard upgrades for accessibility.

Yet Ogden, serving the wealthy Near North Side, has already had the benefit of private help that schools in more impoverished communities lack. The school’s freshly renovated feel and general air of orderliness is largely due to the tens of thousands of dollars donated by parents and philanthropic neighbors. The principal says the money has equipped the school with such extras as a rock-climbing wall and a well-stocked library that features a bank of computers and a digital chalkboard, called a SmartBoard.

One of the school’s patrons, Joel Carlins, split costs with a local restaurant to have the school painted several years ago. Carlins is the founder and president of Magellan Development Group LLC, which is financing the Lakeshore East project. The developent will include a new elementary school under the Modern Schools plan. Once built, it could serve as many as 60 students who currently live within Ogden’s boundaries. At this time, it’s unclear how much money Magellan will put toward the school. Carlins declined to be interviewed.

Carlins had previously offered to build a new school for Ogden on the ground floor of a proposed high-rise condominium he would develop on the property. That plan fell through after some neighbors objected to the designs, notes Ogden’s principal, Kenneth Staral.

Still waiting at Hughes

Ballooning costs for projects like the new Westinghouse High, which will cost $40 million more than originally estimated, create a sense of uncertainty for others who await their turn for new schools.

The district has been promising a school to replace Langston Hughes Elementary in Roseland since the late 1990s, but it pulled funding twice, notes Principal Earl Ware. “There’s no guarantee until the school is built, until they break ground,” he says.

CPS officials expect to solicit bids for the estimated $30 million project toward the end of this year, with the goal of replacing Hughes by fall 2009. Once built, it will also house students from the nearby Davis Developmental Center.

The $40 million increase for Westinghouse would cover costs for any of the 15 new elementary schools, which are budgeted for $30 million apiece. (High schools are budgeted at $65 million a piece.)

Chief Financial Officer John Maiorca says the district does not plan to cut any of the Modern Schools projects to pay for Westinghouse’s cost overrun. It will look for alternative funding sources during the next round of capital budgeting, he says.

To get a handle on costs, the Public Building Commission recently asked architectural firms to compete to refine the district’s prototype designs for 12 planned new elementary schools. The winner will also be asked to push forward on designs for the new $34 million Skinner Classical, a project for which the district hopes to complete land acquisition this summer.

David Vitale, the district’s former chief administrative officer, says all the new schools that are not being built as replacements will house Renaissance schools, potentially including charters.

That’s a sticking point for the teachers union, which wants construction reserved for unionized schools. In 2005, the union railed against the district when it installed ASPIRA-Haugan Middle School Charter into a new facility meant to relieve overcrowding at Haugan Elementary in Albany Park.

“We did it once and there were a lot of people who were upset,” admits Vitale. “But I won’t say it won’t happen again.”