Elite high school once known as ‘Obama Prep’ put off by CPS deal
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Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s much-ballyhooed plan to build a $60 million selective-enrollment high school on the Near North Side that was to be named after President Barack Obama is one of the casualties of the eleventh-hour deal that staved off a teachers strike.
Emanuel sealed the deal with the Chicago Teachers Union, in part by declaring a $175 million surplus from tax-increment-financing funds, with roughly $88 million of that going to the Chicago Public Schools.
That required a handful of aldermen to sacrifice big-ticket projects that would have been bankrolled by TIF funding.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) was one of them. The project he agreed to sacrifice — indefinitely — is the selective-enrollment high school on the Near North Side that Emanuel announced with great fanfare in the run-up to his 2015 re-election campaign.
“We’re being asked to give up a lot of money,” Burnett said after emerging from a closed-door briefing on the mayor’s 2017 budget. “Pawar gave up a lot. Brendan Reilly gave up a lot. Several aldermen are giving up a lot of things to help with this situation because folks want the children and the parents to be whole so they don’t have to lose their jobs, take off work — all of those things. It was about the kids.”
Under repeated questioning, Burnett acknowledged that the $60 million selective enrollment high school would be postponed indefinitely.
Pressed on why he was willing to sacrifice the showcase project, the alderman noted that the project has been in limbo with the Public Building Commission for months.
“We didn’t have a permanent spot for it,” the alderman said. “My main focus for the Obama high school is to help me to sell the other property and the mixed-income housing over at Cabrini Green. That’s my whole concern about that school. Helping me to make those mixed income developments more marketable so we could use subsidies from market rate people to build housing for the poor people.
“Eventually, it will be built.”
During a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, Emanuel insisted that the showcase high school would be “deferred, but not permanently.”
Said the mayor: “We have a couple thousand students every year who are qualified academically to get into those [selective enrollment] schools. But, we don’t have the room. Which is why I reversed the policy of tearing done old Jones [H.S.] Kept it up. Expanded Jones. I made an addition at Payton. We have the largest International Baccalaureate program.
“My goal is quality. Your choice as a parent is to find the right choice for your child.”
On April 24, 2014, Emanuel unveiled plans to use $60 million generated by the Near North TIF to build Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school and name it after Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief-of-staff helped Emanuel gain key support from black voters in his first mayoral election.
Emanuel subsequently dropped the Obama name from the school, saying he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss. Black elected officials had taken offense, citing the school’s Near North Side location and the president’s roots on the South Side.
The controversy didn’t die with the name change. That’s because area residents weren’t consulted about the school and because the announcement came around the time of Emanuel’s decision to close 50 public schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.
Cassie Creswell is part of the parents’ group that circulated petitions against the proposed school and staged protests against it, including one outside Burnett’s office during the summer — a demonstration that ended in calls to police.
The delay came as a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, to Creswell, since their opposition began right after officials made their announcement.
“That is not an area where you need another selective enrollment school,” Creswell said. “In spring 2014, it was like, this is not a sensible facilities decision for the district.”
It still isn’t, considering that the total CPS student population continues to fall, Creswell added.
Wells High School, a neighborhood school with plenty of room for more students is within a mile of the proposed site, and is “really suffering for enrollment and really suffering for resources,” Crewell said.
Adding salt to the wound was Emanuel’s earlier decision to spend $17 million in TIF money to expand Payton, also on the Near North Side.
The now-shelved Obama College Prep was supposed to have space for 1,200 high-achieving students, 30 percent of them from the surrounding community. It was 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.
The year Emanuel announced plans for the school, 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.
Last year, Burnett went public with his fears that the school might never be built. He cited the $9.5 billion pension crisis and $1.1 billion budget shortfall that, at the time, threatened the on-time opening of Chicago Public Schools.
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick