Facilities plan OK’d, but questions of money, equity remain

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Though CPS enrollment has declined in recent years, this year budget officials and demographers projected that the district would enroll 405,000 students—about 2,000 more than last year.

Though not specifically mentioned at the regular Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, enrollment projections and the budget were background factors as board members approved the district’s 10-year Educational Facilities Master Plan.

The district’s budget book states that the projection was based on a host of factors, from birth rates to public perception of school reform initiatives. As it turns out, they got it wrong: CPS officials now say only about 400,000 students enrolled.

CPS will pay dearly for this miscalculation. Earlier this week, it was announced that schools won’t lose money if they enrolled fewer students than expected. Had this money been taken away, as in previous years, CPS would have banked $46 million, according to information released by the district.

Meanwhile, CPS is giving additional money to schools that enrolled more students than projected, at a cost of $18 million.

Overcrowding relief

At Wednesday’s meeting, several board members noted the contradiction between the needs noted in the facilities plan– air conditioning, modernizing science labs and computer labs, building playgrounds, making buildings accessible, relieving overcrowding – and basic maintenance and repair costs, which will balloon in the coming years.

“The cumulative price tag is much bigger than our resources,” board member Henry Bienen said. “It is a misnomer to call it a plan. I have no trouble voting for this, but frankly it doesn’t commit us to much of anything.”

At the same time, a number of aldermen and parents came to the meeting to set out their school facilities grievances – among them 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, who while praising plans to make Al Raby High School a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school, urged the district to be aware of a lack of air conditioning in Garfield Park schools.

There was also 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith, who backed some Lincoln Elementary parents’ bid to get a new and larger school building; and 36th Ward Ald. Nicholas Sposato, who complained of schools that are “140 percent, 150 percent, 200 percent” of their capacity.

“They don’t have lunchrooms, kids are in hallways. It’s not a conducive environment to learning,” Sposato said.

Locke Elementary parent Ewa Wojciechowska also complained about the school’s inadequate playground. “It is just asking for accidents – serious ones,” she said.  “Too many children, too little space. And the dirt, children go home and they look like mine workers.” 

And Canty Elementary parent Stacy Babich said the school, which enrolls over 800 but was built for 500, is badly in need of an addition. “Students are working on the floor,” she said.

Ambitious goals

In addition to those issues, the plan sets out goals of creating more top-flight career, IB, STEM, military and selective schools. Other priorities are moving away from special education cluster programs; creating schools that serve preschool through 8th grade and 9th through 12th grade, rather than middle schools; and building health centers, early childhood classrooms, “parent universities” and counseling centers.

 But Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz said achieving the goals “is going to be challenging.” Repair costs alone are currently estimated at $3.5 billion and are expected to grow at a rate of $300 million a year, he said. Overcrowding relief will cost an additional $500 million to $3 billion. Yet the district typically budgets just $200 million a year for capital spending.

CPS says it created the plan with surveys of school principals and LSC chairpersons; five public forums; 25 meetings and hearings around the city; and text and social media engagement campaigns. Babbitz said that community feedback caused the district to reinforce that it won’t close schools in the next five years, to strengthen language about investing in neighborhood schools, and to include specific priorities for each community.

Board member Mahalia Hines pointed out that, while the plan noted a shortage of selective enrollment schools on the South Side, selective schools that do exist on the South Side are less sought-after than those on the North Side. “If we could get the population into those schools, we could alleviate some of the crowding” in North Side selective schools, she said.

Several board members, including Andrea Zopp, pressed Babbitz on the plan’s lack of guidelines for prioritizing various needs or making sure capital spending is equitable. “How are we going to decide which overcrowded schools to address?” Zopp asked. “We think it’s important to have some transparency around whatever kind of process we are going to create.”

Bienen suggested that the district could use “a systematic way of dealing with overcrowding.”

Babbitz stressed that the plan is a “living document” that will be updated over time, and that the district will have to pursue additional state funding to address the capital needs. Also, he said, specifics of the district’s spending plans are spelled out within each year’s annual capital budget.