Going to the head of the class

Print More
Renovations at Calumet High

Renovations at Calumet High

Tracy Treadwell, a veteran on the local school council at Sumner Elementary, didn’t expect a quick fix of the West Garfield Park school’s roof supports when the district set aside more than $300,000 for repairs back in 2004. It can take months, and sometimes years, for the district to start projects after earmarking funds in its capital budget.

But workmen arrived that summer and finished repairs that fall, cleaning up and painting long-vacant rooms in the process. The school immediately used the newfound space for its learning center and music classes, and teachers moved in to decorate classrooms and post instructional materials the following summer. The LSC discussed opening a full-day preschool now that Sumner had more space.

But just weeks before school was set to start, central office dropped a bombshell: An unwanted neighbor, KIPP Ascend Charter, would be taking over the newly reopened classrooms. KIPP had been sharing space, and a rocky relationship, with McNair Academy in Austin.

“Somebody knew the master plan, but we didn’t,” says Treadwell, who suspects the district fixed Sumner’s roof knowing all along it would install KIPP. (Soon after the repairs, the district started to “show” the space to visitors brought in unannounced, he notes.)

Treadwell’s charges are backed by others at Sumner. The school’s longtime principal, W. Delores Robinson, declined to comment.

The district denies the charges. “We fixed it because it needed to be fixed,” says spokesman Michael Vaughn.

But the Sumner-KIPP saga illustrates how inequity in building repairs has become part of the politically charged atmosphere surrounding Renaissance 2010. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of capital spending data shows that CPS has given top priority to renovations for charters and other new schools—something that proponents of traditional neighborhood schools have suspected since Renaissance was launched.

In fact, David Vitale, outgoing chief administrative officer, concedes that CPS has put Renaissance projects at the head of the line.

Catalyst’s analysis shows:

* Nearly $50 million of $265 million in renovations now underway are being done in Renaissance and charter schools, according to April reports from area offices. That’s about 19 percent of renovations taking place in buildings that house just 4 percent of students.

* Renaissance and charter schools are getting repairs completed or funded at a faster pace than traditional schools: 62 percent compared to 45 percent, respectively.

* For every $1 already spent, CPS needs to spend another 61 cents to finish renovations in buildings housing Renaissance schools. But in traditional schools, the district needs to spend another $1.21—nearly twice as much—for every $1 already spent.

Vitale, who has overseen the capital program in recent years, admits the district has targeted help to its new schools. He says it makes sense to make repairs when a school is empty, as they generally are after a school closing makes way for a Renaissance project.

“We consciously prioritize these schools to get them into an acceptable level for reopening,” he adds.

For their part, charter operators contend that they need more help with facilities, not less. Many Renaissance buildings needed major work to get them ready, Vaughn notes, and some of those buildings are housing two schools and needed renovations to accommodate space-sharing.

Vitale also hopes that school funding reform in Springfield will end the state’s three-year freeze on capital dollars. If it does, then CPS should reap about $100 million in renovation money annually.

With that money, Vitale adds, “We’ll get more done like we should.”

Calumet ‘was the pits’

Communities that have been clamoring for school repairs, sometimes by shouting demands publicly at capital budget hearings, are dismayed at what they see as a lack of rhyme or reason to capital spending.

In Auburn Gresham, the costly renovation of long-neglected Calumet High to accommodate two new charters (one opened in the building last year) has raised questions from at least one parent. “The only time I’ve seen work being done on the school was when they decided they were going to phase it out,” says Bennie Sanders, a parent representative who chairs the soon-to-be-defunct Calumet local school council. “The Board of Education just neglected that school, period.”

But Ald. Howard Brookins credits the existing charter with energizing the community around better educational options. He labels the shuttered Calumet a “failure” that lacked the leadership needed to bring construction dollars to the community.

“From my perspective, it was already on the decline when it was time for me to go to high school in 1977,” says Brookins, who attended a Catholic school. “And when I was elected alderman in 2003, it was the pits. It was the school of last resort.”

Calumet, an 80-year-old neighborhood high school, is budgeted to get $17 million worth of rehab work. Of that, $11.5 million in work is underway, including more than 900 new windows, plumbing and electrical upgrades, roof repairs and a host of interior and exterior improvements.

Perspectives Charter, which already operates a college prep school in Calumet’s facility, will open two more this coming fall in the Calumet building: a middle school with an emphasis on discipline and a high school with a technology focus.

Brookins says Perspectives is also working to find the money to build a swimming pool that would also be used by the community. That project is a priority for Brookins, who wants to combat childhood obesity and says black children in low-income neighborhoods need community pools just like children in more affluent communities. The Perspectives staff is working to price out the project and find private partners to help pay for it, all of which has impressed Brookins.

“It’s very difficult to find a facility. When you do, you grab it,” says Perspectives’ Chief Operations Officer John Hayner, as he shows off state-of-the-art science labs and other new features during a walkthrough of the Calumet building.

The charter beat out several other proposals to take over Calumet. “The fact is, we rose to the challenge,” Hayner adds. Backers of Perspectives say that the community is getting better school options that are sorely needed.

Dion Miller Perez, executive director of Telpochcalli Community Education Project at Telpochcalli Elementary in Little Village, argues that it’s crucial to have a comprehensive capital plan that takes care of all schools fairly. The building that houses Telpochcalli and Saucedo Elementary is one of the district’s most unfunded when it comes to capital needs: For every $1 already spent, the district needs to spend $3.28 to finish renovations.

“It’s also important not to fall prey to the capriciousness or whims of whatever is the reform du jour,” Perez adds.

Private money to fill the gap

Charter school advocates aren’t happy either. They say their schools need even more help to find suitable buildings.

“Facilities are one of the greatest challenges facing charters across the country,” says Jill Levine, Director of School Services for the Illinois Facilities Fund, which helps charters finance their capital projects.

The district gives charters $425 per pupil for each of the 31 schools in non-CPS buildings, typically leased former Catholic schools. The five charters that opened this year in CPS-owned facilities are charged $775 per pupil ($1,025 for high schools) to cover the cost of building engineers, janitors, security personnel and technology support.

The 10 charters that opened in CPS facilities before fall 2006 paid nothing, but that’s changing: The district is starting to charge each charter operator as their contracts come up for renewal.

According to Levine, $425 per pupil is not nearly enough. It rarely covers rent, let alone maintenance and renovation costs. Charters, therefore, dip into their instructional money to cover facilities costs.

In addition, because charter funding is provided on a per-pupil basis, charter budgets can be especially tight in the initial years as schools ramp up to full enrollment. Fewer kids mean fewer dollars, yet the cost of renting, heating and maintaining a building remains the same.

Private backers, as a result, have stepped in to offer start-up funds.

The Renaissance Schools Fund, which connects businesses, foundations and other philanthropists with new school operators, has provided nearly $21 million to schools so far. Technically, these grants cannot be used for capital projects, but once schools establish relationships with funders, help for building repairs often follows.

But money is still tight, according to a report by the Progressive Policy Institute, which suggests that smaller charters face a difficult choice: Move into an available CPS facility, give the district its per-pupil ‘take back,’ and hope to make ends meet; or take a chance on finding a suitable, affordable facility in the neighborhood they’re trying to serve.

The situation may be even more difficult for charter high schools, according to MariBeth Welch, a special assistant to the president of ASPIRA. Mirta Ramirez Computer Science Charter School, run by ASPIRA, has been looking for a new site since it opened in 2003.

Welch says the Archdiocese of Chicago seems less comfortable renting to high schools, perhaps because they worry about charters drawing students from Catholic schools. CPS and the Illinois Facilities Fund should play a more active role in helping charters find facilities, she adds.

“They’ve been leaving it, to a great extent, to the local leaders and the local politics,” she says. “[But] we’re almost a persona non grata in these communities.”

Buying their own

Landing a space in a CPS school will be tough for operators applying for the next round of Renaissance schools. Officials are strongly encouraging prospective operators to find their own buildings, and are offering up just four buildings to house new schools in 2008: Woodson South, a newly renovated school in Grand Boulevard, will house one 600-student middle school; Parker, an elementary school in Englewood, will make room for a 600-student high school; Pershing West, a performance school in Douglas, will share with a 500-student high school; and two new schools in the old Austin High campus will make way for another 400- to 600-student high school.

Regardless, many charter operators have shied away from CPS buildings, citing concerns over the district’s bureaucratic capital improvement program. Some are even buying their own buildings, with help from the IFF.

United Neighborhood Organization, a nonprofit that runs four charters and will open four new ones this fall, rents most of its buildings from the Archdiocese. The charter’s rented space has helped the district find a less-expensive solution to its overcrowding problems on the city’s Southwest Side, since the money paid to charters is less than that spent in traditional schools. But it’s also part of a growing trend for charters to muster enough borrowing power to purchase buildings outright.

Andrew Alt, UNO’s director of operations, gives two reasons to avoid CPS buildings.

“CPS has to pick their battles, and I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m waiting for them to pick my [capital] project,” he says. “And too often, elements of the community will view you as the former school that was there before. We’d rather create our own identity.”

UNO has issued tax-exempt bonds to purchase two buildings; one is a vacated warehouse that will need substantial renovations. The loans were partially backed by an IFF bond program, making them far more attractive on the market.

Sharing not an option

The Chicago Charter School Foundation, which runs nine Chicago International Charter School campuses, is also moving toward buying its own. The Foundation has already purchased its Basil and Longwood campus buildings and is currently working out a deal for the Northtown facility.

Beth Delaney Purvis, executive director of the Foundation, says the charter considered starting a new school at Austin, but bowed out after learning it would have to share the facilities.

“When you start a new school, it’s a great challenge. Sharing is just an additional challenge,” says Purvis.

Of the 47 charters, just 11 share campus space with other schools, and only seven share with non-charters. Those relationships have proven most contentious, as in the cases of KIPP and Sumner; and Wadsworth Elementary and University of Chicago’s charter high school.

But some have found ways to co-exist peacefully. Legacy Charter has reportedly found a comfortable arrangement with Mason Elementary in North Lawndale.

The district doesn’t help the situation when it springs plans with little warning, notes Sumner’s Treadwell.

Sumner staff had to scramble into action, tearing down decorations in the new classrooms and working out a space arrangement, when plans to bring in KIPP were dropped on them just before the school year.

To their credit, says Treadwell, KIPP operators cut checks to teachers as compensation for the hassle.

Jim O’Connor, KIPP’s principal, admits the previous arrangement with McNair turned rocky as the two schools’ students occasionally clashed and KIPP’s growing enrollment put a strain on available space.

“We’re a much better neighbor than we were,” he surmises, pointing to a contract he signed with Sumner’s principal to better manage access to collective resources like the gym. “I would be in McNair if there was space, but we’re planning to stay here.”

Treadwell is less enthusiastic: “There’s nothing positive to say.”

Intern Rebecca Harris contributed to this report

Call John Myers at (312) 673-3874 or e-mail myers@catalyst-chicago.org.