Alderman wonders where is new $60M elite high school?

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Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) with Mayor Emanuel at an event earlier this year. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

More than a year ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled plans to use $60 million in tax increment financing money to build Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side named after President Barack Obama.

Emanuel subsequently dropped the Obama name saying he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss. Black elected officials had taken offense, citing the president’s roots on the South Side.

Now, the local alderman is wondering whether the showcase North Side high school, whatever it ends up being called, will ever be built.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) expressed his fears four days after CPS notified the Chicago Teachers Union it would not exercise its option to extend the teachers contract for another year because it does not have the $105 million needed to fund the 3 percent pay raise.

CPS is facing a $1.1 billion shortfall and a $9.5 billion pension crisis.

“We have TIF money for the capital stuff [to build the school], but TIF money can’t be used to run it and staff it,” said Burnett, who helped the mayor get re-elected.

Burnett said he still favors a vacant riverfront parcel at Division and Halsted as the site for the school of 1,200 after the original plan to build it in Stanton Park ran into a buzz-saw of community opposition.

But he can’t seem to get the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission to agree to hold a hearing to get the required community approval.

And that’s making him antsy.

“If we don’t hurry up and get it done, you won’t see that thing happening until three years from now or four years from now. Then, we’ll be getting ready to do a re-map again,” he said.

Since the April 7 runoff, Emanuel has had more important concerns, not the least of which is solving the combined $30 billion pension crisis at the city and public schools.

There’s also the $20.5 million contracting scandal that pushed schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to take a paid leave of absence and may force the mayor to search for a permanent replacement — his fourth CEO in four years.

Building Commission spokeswoman Molly Sullivan had no immediate comment, nor could she explain why no concrete progress has been made.

Last Friday, CPS proposed a bare-bones, $160 million capital budget — the smallest in 20 years — that makes no mention of the marquee school. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffery said that’s because capital money to build it was set aside last year.

The showcase school, with space for 1,200 high-achieving students, 30 percent of them from the surrounding community, is central to Emanuel’s plan to give parents more high-quality options to prevent families from fleeing to the suburbs when their children approach high school age.

This year alone, applications for coveted spots in Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment high schools rose by 8 percent. That left 16,440 students vying for 3,200 seats.

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