Lawmaker to block $50M for Near South Side high school until Lightfoot, CPS address community concerns

State Rep. Theresa Mah had been among the strongest backers of the idea to build a new high school. But she called the city’s plan “offensive” and politically motivated.

State Rep. Theresa Mah speaks during a news conference at the Thompson Center last year.

State Rep. Theresa Mah speaks during a news conference at the Thompson Center last year.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

State Rep. Theresa Mah, who has long backed the construction of a Near South Side high school, says she will block $50 million in state funding from the project until Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools officials take community concerns more seriously.

City officials nonetheless say they are moving forward with key votes Wednesday to advance the proposal and are still counting on state funding coming through.

Mah, a Chicago Democrat, said she wants to see authentic community engagement and a stronger, “good faith” effort to find an alternative site before she considers backing the district’s plan again. The school is slated to be built on former public housing land at 24th and State streets.

Her move came hours after the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ reported that senior CPS officials warned leaders last year that a new Near South high school could undermine nearby Black schools and ultimately harm Black students — a vastly different story than Lightfoot and district officials have told publicly.

“Pushing forward on a project that’s controversial, that nobody’s happy with, that’s pretty nakedly about the mayor getting an election year win and using resources that she thinks are available to create that win, is just offensive,” Mah said.

“Each time anybody expresses any opposition, it gets completely ignored,” she said.

The state lawmaker had been among the strongest backers of the idea to build a new high school, spearheading a proposal in the General Assembly two years ago to secure $50 million in state funding. Her success in securing capital funding revitalized the hopes of Chinatown residents who for years had fought for a neighborhood school.

But she has opposed the city’s proposed site on part of the former Harold Ickes Homes public housing complex, standing with housing residents and advocates who have accused the city of breaking its promises for new housing there. The Chicago Housing Authority says it intends to build the public housing units promised for the community but in a denser area nearby.

Mah accused CPS of holding disingenuous community meetings in which no input was actually taken.

“It’s all just to check a box,” Mah said. “It’s all for show because they have this idea in mind, they want to push forward and they’re making up the support for it.”

As the sponsor of the $50 million in state funding, Mah said she would request that Gov. JB Pritzker’s office block the release of the funds to CPS. And she said she plans to remove the funding from next year’s state capital budget. Mah said she has a commitment from Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch backing her decision.

City Hall and CPS officials wouldn’t comment on Mah’s move, only saying: “The state approved $50 million for a new school in this area, and we are confident that our ongoing review and engagement efforts will support plans for a proposed high school.

“Chicago Public Schools remains committed to building a high school that will serve a diverse student population from the South Loop, Chinatown, Bridgeport, and Bronzeville communities and will continue to engage with all Chicago residents, particularly those families who live in the neighborhoods this school aims to serve,” officials said in a statement.

CPS spokeswoman Sylvia Barragan said the district has held more than 30 community meetings since May and engaged with “hundreds of individuals.”

Mah wanted CPS to pull three agenda items related to the proposed new school from Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting. The school board is slated to take key votes to move the project forward, one authorizing the $10.3 million purchase of land at 23rd and Wabash from a private company, J&J Motor Service Inc. The district planned to use its own capital funding for the purchase.

CPS says appraisers at Zimmerman Real Estate Associates valued the J&J Motor Service Inc. land at $10.275 million, though district officials would not make a copy of that appraisal available. Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office set its estimated market value of those same parcels of land at $1.3 million. Kaegi’s office could not immediately explain the discrepancy.

The second is an agreement with the CHA to swap the land at 23rd and Wabash for a 95-year lease on the CHA parcel at 24th and State where CPS wants to build the new school.

Board members also plan to vote on giving the city’s Public Building Commission an additional $5 million from CPS’ capital budget for “formulation services: planning, pre-design and design services.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who wrote an op-ed essay this week in favor of the new high school currently planned in her ward, declined to comment.

Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick are reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sarah Karp reports for WBEZ.

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