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With Rahm Emanuel facing election fight, massive CPS building plans are unveiled

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS announced plans for a new, $70 million high school building on the Near West Side among nearly $1 billion in new spending.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS announced plans for a new, $70 million high school building on the Near West Side among nearly $1 billion in new spending. | AP

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools officials announced plans Friday for a new, $70 million high school building somewhere on the Near West Side as part of nearly $1 billion in new projects.

The announcement at Cardenas Elementary School came as Emanuel finds himself facing a crowded field of challengers to his bid for reelection and amid plummeting CPS enrollment. And it had the fervor of a political rally.

“We’re not going to be able to take care of all the challenges, but we’ve met a lot of them head on, ” Emanuel said, “Dealing with overcrowding, the ability to have recess in a facility that’s not half broken concrete, being able to meet our needs not only physically but educationally and then emotionally and make those investments in our kids. But we are better prepared to build on the progress we have made over the last seven years to ensure that every child has a bright future.”

CPS CEO Janice Jackson called the $989 million in planned projects “the largest investment in recent history or in my memory as lifelong Chicagoan.” And the big spending comes on top of a $6 billion proposed operating budget for the fiscal year that began earlier this month, provided the Chicago Board of Ed approves it all on July 25.

The mayor would not specify where the building money is coming from, though he suggested that better bond ratings and a more favorable state school-funding formula have left CPS with more money. According to CPS’ budget website, some $750 million will come from future bond sales and “other capital funds.”

The new high school and a new $75 million building that’s now promised for Hancock High School — the only test-in selective enrollment school on the Southwest Side — are the latest new high schools Emanuel has pledged to build even as enrollment at many existing high schools has shrunk and the cost of facility needs at existing buildings are estimated at about $3 billion.

Jackson said a location hasn’t yet been identified for the new high school, which CPS says is needed to support the “growing student population in the area.”

Asked to describe even the general area, she also declined to answer, saying, “We don’t have it, but we’re going to be working directly with the communities to identify a space.”

Armando Chacon, president of the West Central Association, who until last week was a Skinner West Local School Council Member, said his group was among those lobbying for the high school to take in the growing number of students who graduate from elementary schools in and around the booming West Loop. For the most part, they don’t attend Wells Community Academy, their assigned neighborhood school, though it sits north of their neighborhoods.

“With a new school, funding is obviously critical,” said Chacon. “The fact that this announcement was made today is very promising.”

His committee would like to see guaranteed spots for kids from eight schools of varying income levels, including the two that take kids from all over the city — Jackson Language Academy and Skinner West. 

“This high school would not just accommodate very affluent families,” he said.

CPS hasn’t yet committed to any details.

CPS is also expanding the capacity of Senn and Rickover high schools, which currently share a building at 5900 N Glenwood Ave. Rickover will move nearby into the old Luther High School building, which CPS recently purchased. Officials have earmarked millions more for major facilities improvements at Washington and Kenwood high schools, and for program support at Hyde Park and Prosser high schools. And three schools that use a classical model for grades K through 6 will get a combined $40 million to expand into 7th and 8th grades. That includes a $20 million addition for Decatur, whose parents have long trudged to school board meetings to ask for more space.

Other schools slated under the newly announced plans to get annexes are four North Side elementary schools that the Chicago Teachers Union noted serve relatively few African-American students, with $30 million for Dirksen, $24 million for Waters and $20 million each for Palmer and Rogers.

“Our concern is equity,” union spokeswoman Christine Geovanis said. “And where is the plan that is designed to lift up neighborhoods that are so clearly struggling? By not having a plan, by refusing to deploy a plan, they’ve been able to dovetail these one-off announcements that don’t strengthen all neighborhoods and all neighborhood needs equally, and end up privileging some at the expanse of thousands of others.”

Public hearings will be held on July 16 at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. at 42 W. Madison to discuss the operating budget and on July 19 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the capital projects simultaneously at Truman College, Malcolm X College and Kennedy King College.

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