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Mayor quietly informs Southwest Side of new school, addition

Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) thinks the mayor and his former challenger can come to some sort of agreement. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has quietly agreed to build a new school and a school addition to ease severe overcrowding on the Southwest Side but the good-news announcement was cloaked in secrecy.

The decision to build a 16-classroom annex at Byrne Elementary, 5329 S. Oak Park, and a new school at 65th and Nottingham to replace Dore Elementary, 6108 S. Natoma, was unveiled at invitation-only meetings at the respective schools last Saturday.

Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), whose ward includes the two overcrowded schools, was among the VIPs in attendance.

Zalewski said the mayor gave no details about the cost of the school and school addition or the where the money would come from at a time when the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public School system is bracing for devastating classroom cuts.

That just might explain the stealth announcement. City Hall may want to keep the lid on any expansion plans at a time when it’s pleading for hundreds of millions of dollars in pension help from the General Assembly in the waning days of the spring session.

No matter where Emanuel finds the money to build the new school and school addition, Zalewski is relieved.

He lobbied hard for the annex at Byrne, a top-rated school of about 670 students, and credited Ald. Marty Quinn (13th), whose ward committeeman is House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, for carrying the ball for a replacement for overcrowded Dore.

“I am very happy the overcrowding will see some relief,” Zalewski said in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Overcrowding was severe at both schools. It was made worse when a Catholic school, St. Rene, closed last year,” he added.

Parents at Dore, another top-rated elementary school, have long lobbied the Board of Education for help housing its 725 students.

Zalewski said the news that Southwest Side residents will welcome was made at a “very quiet announcement” at the two schools.

“There was NO press there. . . . No concrete information. No $ amounts given,” he wrote.

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment on the expansion plans or source of funding.

“Just as it has done in the case of other schools facing overcrowding, CPS has hosted parent meetings to identify ways to best address capacity issues facing both Dore and Byrne Elementary Schools — which are among the city’s most overcrowded schools,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an email. “While the District faces significant financial challenges, we have a responsibility to provide children across the city with the tools they need to obtain a 21st century education and address overcrowding or any other matter creating a barrier to academic success.”

Felicia Davis, executive director of the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission charged with constructing new schools and school additions, said the source of funding “hasn’t been decided yet.”

“These were preliminary conversations with a community of very active parents who’ve been advocating for assistance for a very long time,” Davis said Thursday.

“This is the pre-planning phase. Once CPS takes the appropriate action, then I’ll go to my board” with funding specifics, Davis said.

The Chicago Teachers Union also was caught by surprise.

“We are concerned about more school expansions or closures at a time when CPS says it can barely afford to keep its doors open,” spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said.