For the Record: Maintenance costs for closed schools cut by $300 million

March 14, 2014

To help sell its plans for closing 50 schools, CPS leaders claimed that it would cost more than $400 million over the next decade to keep the buildings open, repair them and maintain them. Closings the buildings would thus save a big chunk of money.

But now that the district is trying to get the shuttered buildings off the books, officials have dramatically reduced their initial estimate of maintenance costs.

CPS now says that it would cost only about $100 million to maintain the buildings, as schools, over the next 10 years, according to a Request-for-Proposals that was issued in February to solicit bids from real estate agents. CPS also includes TIF information for each school, showing how much money is available from tax increment financing, an incentive program that developers can access to pay for capital improvements.

Cecile Carroll of the grassroots group Blocks Together says she is alarmed that CPS is having brokers look at the schools before getting feedback from the community about what they would like to see the buildings used for. 

Carroll and a few other activists showed up on Thursday at the closed Ward school where, according to the RFP, district officials were going to conduct a walk-through for potential brokers. Unbeknownst to them, CPS had withdrawn the RFP and was rescheduling the walkthroughs.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood said the RFP was withdrawn because officials wanted to clarify some of the language around community involvement in the process. He said the solicitation for brokers was just in case the community couldn’t come up with a use for the building and a broker was needed. 

About four of the new estimates on the RFP don’t differ much from last year’s figure. But most of the differences are huge. For example, CPS estimated that it would avoid spending $25 million by closing Morgan in Auburn Gresham. Now, it says the cost to maintain it as a school is $287,000, and just $256,000 to maintain as a vacant property. 

A more typical example is Songhai on the Far South Side. Last year, CPS estimated it would avoid spending $8 million over a decade by the closing the school. Now, it is telling potential developers that it will only cost $340,000 yearly to maintain.

Hood said the estimates last year included "needed capital improvements."

"The maintenance numbers in the this RFP (as a school) are our own estimates about what it would likely cost someone to operate this building as a school or office building or whatever else," Hood wrote in an e-mail. "It only takes into account annual utility costs, janitorial services, landscaping, etc."

However, some of the criticism of the original cost estimates were that they included capital improvement projects, even though CPS often puts off improving buildings for decades.

From the moment that CPS put out cost-savings estimates last winter, principals and parents questioned the figures. One principal told Catalyst Chicago that when he saw the district’s huge estimate for maintenance, he immediately knew that the numbers would be used against his school and that it would be targeted for closure. 

A joint analysis by Catalyst and WBEZ/Chicago Public Media showed that the cost savings touted last year were significantly flawed, and were based on outdated assessments of building needs and other flawed information.

The RFP only included information for 41 schools because some of those shuttered are not being sold. About five already have new uses planned, such as Lafayette in Humboldt Park, which will become the new home for Chi Arts. Some schools shared a building with a school that is still operating: for instance, Wadsworth was consolidated with nearby Dumas, and the school that previously shared Wadsworth’s building, the University of Chicago Charter High School-Woodlawn, now has the entire building.