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Ald. Brookins to head Ed committee, seeks to cancel Obama Prep HS

Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. speaks at a Chicago City Council meeting on March 16, 2016. | Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) was chosen Monday to chair the City Council’s Education Committee and promptly flashed his independence by declaring that the selective enrollment school on the North Side once known as Obama Prep should probably not be built.

“If we don’t have the money, and there’s no demonstrated need for the school, it shouldn’t be built,” Brookins said of the school that Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in the run-up to his 2015 re-election campaign before changing the name to avoid a political uproar.

“I don’t know how we justify more schools of any kind when everybody has pointed to the fact that the city of Chicago is losing population,” Brookins said.

When the mayor’s office was alerted to Brookins’ remarks about a school that Emanuel hopes to build with tax-increment financing generated on the North Side, Brookins called back to clarify his remarks.

“If there’s a need and the money, yes [go ahead and built it]. If there’s the need and no money, no. They’re saying we have the money,” he said.

Brookins replaces former Ald. Will Burns (4th) as chairman of the $265,377-a-year Committee on Education and Child Development. Burns abruptly announced his retirement one year after breezing to re-election to accept a top job with home-sharing giant Airbnb.

For Brookins, the Education Committee may be a bit of a consolation prize or, at the very least, a peace offering from Emanuel.

In the March 15 Democratic primary, Emanuel backed incumbent Congressman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., over Brookins.

Brookins is the former chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus who served on Emanuel’s school closing commission. The alderman sat through scores of public hearings across the city in a process that culminated in the mayor’s controversial decision to close a record 50 public schools.

The move alienated African-American voters who helped elect Emanuel in 2011 and nearly cost the mayor his re-election bid.

Brookins takes the helm of the Education Committee at a perilous time. The Chicago Public Schools are nearly bankrupt and staring down the barrel of a $676 million payment to the teachers pension fund due on June 30.

The school budget assumed $480 million in pension help from Springfield that has yet to materialize and is nowhere in sight because of the state budget stalemate.

And the Chicago Teachers Union is fresh off a one-day strike that CPS called “illegal” and is poised to strike again as early as mid-May if, as expected, the contract handed down by a fact-finder on Saturday is not to the union’s liking.

That’s why Raise Your Hand hopes Brookins succeeds in putting Obama Prep blueprints away.

Wendy Katten, director of the group that advocates for equitable schools, opposes the plan regardless of money.

“In broke times it’s just a no-brainer. It’s an absurd use of funds when our schools are hurt,” she said. “This policy of ranking and sorting is having a whole impact on our high school system. We’ve created a real system of haves and have-nots.”

“We want a more equitable high school system where we’re not ranking and sorting kids by achievement,” she continued. Her group’s online petition to cancel the school has collected 2,200 signatures.

On Monday, Brookins said he would “make it my mission” to lobby Springfield for “parity in school funding.

Emanuel has promised to raise property taxes by $170 million for teacher pensions — whether or not the state does its part to help Chicago Schools. But after raising property taxes by $588 million last fall for police and fire pensions and school construction, Brookins argued that property taxes are not the long-term solution to school funding.

“We can’t keep funding education on property taxes. What that means is poor communities don’t have sufficient resources to adequately fund education. Whatever money they’re tossing in from the lottery just ain’t doing it,” he said.

“A better way is to fund education is based on income taxes as opposed to property taxes. . . . That [$170 million increase for teacher pensions] may be a temporary solution. But we’re going to have this problem going forward. Each year, we fall $65 million further in the hole based on the current school funding formula. . . . That formula has to change.”

As for the impending teachers strike, Brookins was careful not to take a stand against the powerful CTU, nor would he urge the teachers union to postpone any strike until the fall.

“Everybody understands the situation the city of Chicago is in. I’m confident the CTU will do what’s in the best interest of the city and the schoolchildren,” he said.

“I’m not going to pick that scab. They’re going to do what’s best for everybody,” Brookins said. “They will honestly take into account the kids they love to teach.”

A tentative agreement shot down by the CTU’s 40-person bargaining unit would have put a lid on the number of charter schools. New charters could only have been opened if a corresponding number were closed.

How does the new chairman feel about charter expansion?

“In the past, I’ve been supportive of charter schools. But I agree with the mayor and the CTU that charters need to be judged like every other Chicago Public School. If there are reasons to close schools, charters need to be judged on the same performance metrics,” he said.

The promotion of Brookins created a game of musical chairs among committee chairman. Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) will take over the Economic and Technology Committee. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) will chair the Human Relations Committee.