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Some of special $45M school tax to hasten A/C installation

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who in the past scoffed at the idea of air conditioning all the schools, now wants to use part of a special $45 million property tax school levy to hasten A/C installation across a cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools by one year.

Last April, Emanuel pledged a five-year schedule to put air conditioning units in every CPS classroom that didn’t already have them, at a cost of about $20 million a year, which he planned to fund from the district’s capital budget.

On Tuesday, he told the City Council, which will need to authorize the start of a special tax for school modernization, that he wants the $45 million to “finish the job in making sure that every classroom in every school in every neighborhood is fully air-conditioned — something that the city has debated since 1963.”

According to CPS, 63 remaining schools will get cooling units from the tax that was authorized by Springfield in 2003 but never enacted in Chicago. The special school levy is part of Emanuel’s proposed $588 million tax increase. When fully phased in over four years, it will cost homeowners with an average $250,000 home about $588 a year.

In April 2014, the mayor’s office had projected $100 million to cool off classrooms in 44 schools that had no air conditioning, and an additional 162 that had only some A/C. CPS had already spent about $18.7 million in 2013 to add 2,400 window units to the 49 schools designated to take in children from a record number of closed schools.

District spokesman Bill McCaffrey said 133 schools have been completed and a high school is in progress. Remaining at a cost of $30 million are 34 elementary schools and 29 high schools, he added.

McCaffrey could not say why CPS, which has yet to fill a $480 million budget hole, was rushing to finish the air conditioning by one year.

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The Chicago Teachers Union applauded the idea of better learning conditions for teachers and students, but it speculated that the spending on something already in the works was part of the mayor’s sales pitch on a tax increase.

“He’s going to have to throw in some sweeteners to make his proposals more palatable to people, and this one is a tangible thing that parents can relate to,” CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle said.

“When we were bargaining, it was a very firm, ‘No we can’t afford this,’ ” she said. “I think our members and our parents made it crystal clear to him this this was a priority for the schools, and kids cannot learn if they’re sweating and passing out at their desks.”