Take 5: Capital spending, lead poisoning, CTU’s $50 million sale

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education budget jar

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The 2016 Chicago Public Schools capital budget released last Friday shows few surprises, as district officials have been warning about the bleak financial picture for months. The $160 million budget — the smallest in two decades — includes about $70 million less in spending than CPS had predicted last year in its five-year plan. No new construction projects are being funded next year, and the district is cutting back on money for design work, IT improvements and programmatic expansions.

Projects that have already been underway will continue to get funded, including the second phase of major renovations at Lane Tech in the North Side. That project alone is eating up more than one-fifth of the budget at a price tag of nearly $35 million — nearly half of which is coming from state grants. Also in the 47th Ward, the district plans to spend another $1.2 million in tax-increment financing to install an artificial turf field, running track and parking areas at Audubon Elementary School.

Only three other neighborhoods will see school improvements costing more than $10 million: that’s Beverly’s 19th Ward, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel will deliver on a campaign promise to provide relief from overcrowding at Mount Greenwood Elementary; the 12th Ward’s Little Village neighborhood, where Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy needs a new roof; and the Humboldt Park area in the First Ward, where De Diego Community Academy will get a new roof while Wells and Clemente high schools are getting cash to upgrade their athletic fields. The money for Wells is outside funding, meaning the school was apparently able to find enough cash to build its long awaited field.

Mount Greenwood isn’t the only school getting modular classrooms. So too will John Dore School near Midway Airport. Dore parents have long been voicing their needs for additional space. Dore is one of the district’s most crowded elementary schools, but Mount Greenwood is barely considered overcrowded under the district’s adjusted space utilization index. Many critics considered Emanuel’s promise to Mount Greenwood a campaign favor, as the 19th Ward was one of only 14 that did not go with him during his 2011 mayoral run. (Emanuel won the ward in this year’s runoff election.)

2. More on the budget … Finally, the capital budget includes some money to expand preschool classrooms in one area of the city that most needs them: McKinley Park, which is growing more than any other neighborhood. Two schools in that Southwest Side area — Columbia Explorers Academy and Tonti School — will each get classrooms. In addition, Tilden will get some urgent masonry repair work and Shields Elementary will have some renovations made to its modular classrooms. In total, that part of the city will get about $5.6 million in capital improvements this year.

About $113 million of the $160 million capital budget will be financed through bond sales; the rest comes from a mix of TIF, state and federal dollars. During a press call Friday afternoon, Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz called it a “bare minimum” capital budget that “reflects difficult choices amid a dire fiscal reality.” He repeated the district’s plea to Springfield for pension relief as “we spend a lot more of our own budget on pension support, unlike any other school district in the state […] It’s forcing us to do only emergency repairs, essential maintenance and continue some projects that are currently under way that need to be finished.”

Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro wouldn’t say when schools will get their own budgets for next year, or when the district’s operating budget will be ready. She did, however, indicate that no clear information will come out until after the state Legislature passes its own budget at the end of May. “Given the billion-dollar deficit and the need to address the $700 million pension contribution that we’re facing, until we have a better sense that we can count on support from Springfield or what level of support, it’s hard to anticipate exactly when we’re going to be able to address the budget,” she said.

3. Worsening lead problems … More than one-fifth of children from Chicago’s poorest, predominantly black neighborhoods are testing positive for dangerous levels of brain-damaging lead, the Chicago Tribune reports. And the rate of lead poisoning in 2013 was higher in those neighborhoods than it was five years earlier.

The same is not true in the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods, which also had threatening levels of lead two decades ago. For example, in 1995 more than 80 percent of children in both Austin and Lincoln Park. “By 2013 the rate for the DePaul neighborhood had plummeted to zero. But in the same part of Austin, testing found dangerous lead levels in nearly 24 percent of kids tested,” according to the story.

The city — and federal government — has significantly cut back on spending to fight lead poisoning, which can damage children’s brain development, causing learning disabilities and other problems. “Lead clearly is part of the cycle of deprivation,” says Robert J. Sampson, a Harvard University researcher. “When a neighborhood faces multiple disadvantages, the outcomes for children are worse.”

4. Few answers on CTU windfall … Last fall, Crain’s had a surprising little story about how the Chicago Teachers Union was selling a Gold Coast apartment building it had constructed decades ago for retired teachers. The story was surprising because few people even knew the union owned it, and few former educators live in the subsidized apartments anymore.

This week WGN-TV produced a controversial follow-up story to answer one basic question: What is the CTU doing with the proceeds from the $50 million sale? But it took months to get any answers from the CTU — and those answers weren’t given on camera. Legally, the CTU isn’t a public body, so it doesn’t have to explain its finances to anybody but its own members. None of the teachers Lourdes Duarte, the reporter behind the story, interviewed knew anything about the building or that it’d been sold off. “For a group that has been a fierce critic of the city for lack of transparency, they are not giving up a lot of answers themselves,” Duarte says.

What WGN-TV did learn is that the CTU is spending part of the cash to buy a new building at Damen and Carroll. That space will be renovated and become new union headquarters in 2017. The rest of the money is going to scholarships, though the union would not give more details.

5. Meanwhile in Detroit … Teachers are up in arms over a proposal from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to split the school district in two. The governor wants the elected officials currently running the system — including a state-appointed emergency manager that’s been in place for much of the past 15 years — to be responsible only for paying off the district’s massive debt. And a “new district,” run by people appointed by him and Detroit’s mayor, would get state aid to pay for the day-to-day operations involved with educating some 47,000 students.

Teacher union officials reject the notion of an appointed commission, and worry that the governor’s real plan is to “close more public schools and open more charters,” according to the Detroit Free Press. But Snyder says neither type of school is delivering “great performance” and that he wants to see a school district eventually run by Detroiters, and not under emergency management. Snyder’s proposal is similar to one first suggested by a coalition of community leaders back in March.

One last note … The school board in Fayette County, Kent., voted to terminate its contract with the superintendent search firm PROACT Search in a special meeting on Sunday, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The decision wasn’t based on the FBI probe into CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s dealings with PROACT, SUPES and related companies. Instead it’s because of a Sun-Times story detailing allegations involving accusations of racial slurs and inappropriate behavior by the company’s CEO, Gary Solomon, when he was a teacher at Niles West High School.

The Sun Times also wrote at story about the fact that Byrd-Bennett worked for Synesi Associates, another Solomon company. Byrd-Bennett acknowledged on her resume that she was an adviser to Synesi, which helps school districts do turnarounds. As noted in Catalyst’s original story on the SUPES Academy, Synesi Associates attempted to partner with four schools in CPS to get federal School Improvement Grants, multi-million dollar grants given to low-achieving schools that partner with outside institutions to improve. But the Illinois State Board of Education, which administers the program, did not award the grants to any of the schools associated with Synesi. Instead, ISBE gave the grants to two schools that are partnering with the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success.