CPS scraps plans for new $120M Near South Side high school — for now

Pedro Martinez, the school system’s chief executive, made the surprise announcement at Wednesday’s school board meeting at which members were expected to debate and vote on the plan.

SHARE CPS scraps plans for new $120M Near South Side high school — for now
A vacant lot at West 24th Street and South State Street in the South Loop — part of the former Harold L. Ickes Homes — is the proposed site for a new CPS high school.

A vacant lot at West 24th Street and South State Street in the South Loop — part of the former Harold L. Ickes Homes — is the proposed site for a new CPS high school.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In an eleventh-hour reversal, Chicago Public Schools officials on Wednesday pulled their proposal for a controversial $120 million Near South Side high school.

Pedro Martinez, the school system’s chief executive, made the surprise announcement at the school board meeting at which members, some of whom had already expressed opposition, were expected to debate and vote on the plan.

The project looked uncertain to win Board of Education approval and has faced criticism, even among advocates, for its lack of details leading up to the vote, incomplete community engagement and potential negative effects on neighboring schools. The new building was also planned for Chicago Housing Authority land at 24th and State streets that used to be home to the former Harold L. Ickes Homes housing project.

The Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ examined those concerns in a story published Wednesday morning.

“I want to take a little bit more time to answer questions that exist in the community about this proposal and our partnership with CHA,” Martinez said.

Though Martinez strongly indicated he still supported building a new high school, he declined to say when the proposal would be brought back to the board, only that it would happen “in the near future.”

The decision appeared to surprise board members. Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who has opposed the new high school, asked Martinez, “What changed between yesterday and today?”

“I don’t want to bring an item with such complexity to the board unless I’m sure that we’re answering all the key questions in the community,” Martinez said. “And I still saw a lot of questions coming into today. So I’d like to take more time just to make sure we are answering those questions because it is so complex.”

As recently as Tuesday afternoon, Martinez told the Sun-Times and WBEZ in an interview that he planned to move forward with the proposal.

Until Martinez pulled the proposal, CPS officials were set to ask the Board of Education to approve their $70 million share of the project on top of $50 million from the state. But they had yet to make a case — beyond the clamoring from the area for a school — for whether Chinatown, the South Loop and Bridgeport’s needs justify spending so much of the school system’s resources on a new building amid plummeting enrollment citywide.

Until Tuesday, officials had provided little information about the proposal — not even such basic information as the location, attendance boundaries or the city’s analysis of the effects the school would have on the school system.

Amid Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign, CPS had put the proposed new high school into its capital budget — up for a vote Wednesday — with little public engagement, no land secured at a proposed site and big questions about who would attend the school.

CPS says the Near South Side has grown over the past decade — adding 469 elementary-age kids, reaching a total this year of 5,983 — and projects a 15% increase in the number of high school students within five years.

But enrollment citywide has continued its long downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic, falling 7% from 2020 to 2022. Enrollment for the just-ended school year totaled 330,411. A decade ago, it topped 400,000.

Todd-Breland said the district hasn’t demonstrated the need for the school and is violating its own equity mission by continuing to push the proposal even after the delay. Answering key remaining questions still won’t end in an equitable solution, she said.

“This is not a plan for integration, as I’ve heard it framed,” Todd-Breland said. “It’s a plan that ultimately will harm our most vulnerable students in historically oppressed communities who are being left behind.

“To me ultimately this is what institutional racism looks like, it’s what anti-Blackness looks like, it’s what hypocrisy breeds.”

Board member Sendhil Revuluri also questioned how the district could afford to spend so much money on a new school when district officials in the same meeting were presenting a dire financial outlook over the next few years.

Even advocates for the new high school were pleased with Martinez’s decision to pull the proposal. Though they continue to want the project to proceed in the near future, advocates hadn’t fully backed the 24th and State site and wanted more planning and community input before the proposal moved forward.

David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, a Chinatown community center, said he welcomed the delay to ensure the project and community engagement are done right.

“Every site needs to be fully vetted and understood,” he said. “The 24th and State site has the largest footprint, so that is a positive. But we knew there was concern about the promises to Ickes. We were neighbors to Ickes, so we’re aware of that history.”

Grace Chan McKibben, an advocate for the new school and head of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said the extra time will allow for “conversations that we really need.”

“There’s so much of this guessing about motivations,” she said. “I think everybody has the best intentions at heart, and we just need to have a more comprehensive, more thorough, more authentic process of engagement.”

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