CPS sets aside $70M for long-sought Chinatown H.S., millions more for school playgrounds in new capital budget

The funding was revealed Tuesday in the district’s proposed capital budget, which details construction and maintenance spending for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1.

SHARE CPS sets aside $70M for long-sought Chinatown H.S., millions more for school playgrounds in new capital budget
Chinatown residents have been pushing for a new high school for years.

Chinatown residents have been pushing for a new high school for years.

Colin Boyle/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Public Schools is setting aside $70 million for a new Near South high school, giving the community a major boost in its yearslong push for a new building in or near Chinatown.

The district’s investment, revealed in its new capital budget released Tuesday, is on top of the $50 million the Illinois Legislature allocated to the project two years ago. The funding doesn’t officially green-light a new school, but it’s a step in that direction.

State Rep. Theresa Mah, who spearheaded the proposal in the Legislature, said Tuesday she’s “glad that they’re holding up their end of the commitment.”

“We have to determine a site and there’s still plenty of work to be done,” she said after she learned of the district’s allocation from a reporter. Mah said it’s vital the selected site serves all three communities — Chinatown, Bridgeport and the South Loop.

“There’s a lot of interest in this project, the community’s been asking for this for a long time. This is a good sign, and I’m happy to see that it’s moving forward. But it also can’t be rushed and it can’t be done without full community input.”

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the allocation would allow the district to “explore building a new neighborhood high school” in the area, but noted the district is “early in the engagement process.”

“We know that members of the region have been advocating for a new school for many years, and their advocacy resulted in the state appropriating $50M towards a new high school,” she said in a statement. “We need input from the community to plan, design, and build this new school, and are planning to kick off a community-led planning process this summer.”

In 2018, a Circuit Court judge blocked a controversial plan by CPS to convert the National Teachers Academy, 55 W. Cermak, into a high school. When CPS decided within hours not to appeal the ruling, the plan was scrapped.

NTA remained an elementary school. As a high school, it mainly would have served the rapidly growing South Loop, as well as Bridgeport and Chinatown. Two years later, the Illinois General Assembly set aside $50 million in a new capital budget for a new high school to be built on the Near South Side, to the delight of Chinatown residents.

At the time, proponents acknowledged CPS would still need to commit upwards of $60 million for the project to have any chance. No apparent progress had been made since then, with a CPS spokeswoman saying this spring, “If state funding is re-appropriated, we are committed to assessing the feasibility for a new high school to service the region.”

Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) told the Sun-Times shortly after she was appointed in April that her goal was to deliver a high school to the community.

“CPS and the city — there’s plenty of will there. The reality of it — this needle that has to be threaded — is on the execution. There’s not a whole lot of land and available space to sort of build new or convert. It’s a very complex challenge,” she said in an interview at the time.

“But I feel good that community organizations, parents, city officials as well as CPS are working toward the same goal.”

Capital budget up 12.4%

CPS’ capital budget, which identifies construction and building maintenance projects for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1, grew 12.4% from the current year, up from $706.6 million to $764.5 million. About $550.8 million is CPS-funded while the rest is made up of outside funding such as tax increment financing, or TIF, dollars, state funding and other outside sources.

Other highlights include $58.5 million for playground and play lot replacements at 64 schools; $30.5 million to improve building accessibility for the disabled; and $28 million for technology and security upgrades.

Almost half the capital budget, $365.2 million, is going toward facilities repairs, but that’ll only make a dent in what CPS officials identified as more than $3 billion worth of “critical facility need” districtwide. The school system’s 522 campuses are an average of 82-plus years old.

The capital budget is part of an overall $9.5 billion proposed budget set to be presented to the Board of Education for approval at its monthly meeting June 22.

That includes $769 million worth of payments toward the district’s $8.6 billion of long-term debt.

And there’s the previously revealed school-level funding for staffing and other student supports — which makes up about 48% of the CPS budget this year. Parents and educators have protested those budgets because about 40% of buildings saw cuts when the allocations were first released this spring despite an overall increase in school funding.

Critics have particularly lambasted the cuts when CPS received $1.8 billion in federal pandemic relief funding. But district officials have said that money is meant to last through the next three school years, and they’re loathe to hire staff they won’t be able to retain in a few years.

The district has since restored millions to school budgets through a routine principal appeals process, and now only about a quarter of schools are losing money.

“This proposed budget reaffirms our commitment to academic excellence while addressing mental health and other much-needed supports following a challenging past two years,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement hours after she launched her reelection campaign.

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