Since publishing its five-year capital budget last spring, the Reform Board has quietly added $33 million for the renovation of its new downtown offices and a satellite office at the former Medill Intermediate School on the Near West Side.
The additions—$25 million for downtown and $8 million for Medill—were approved in July and September as part of omnibus reports that included dozens of minor changes to the capitol budget.
With these expenses, the total cost of the board’s move from Pershing Road now stands at more than $41 million. That’s well above the board’s original estimate. When school officials first considered buying the Commonwealth Edison building at 125 S. Clark, they estimated the total price for purchase and renovations at $21.3 to $26.3 million.
“Clearly they were trying to hide how much money it was going to cost,” contends Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education. “It’s not free money,” she adds. “You have to pay for it down the line. There is an increasing amount of money coming out of the general revenue budget that’s going to pay for an increase in bonds. That’s a big concern.”
Woestehoff is referring to the board’s use of a general revenue stream from the state to pay off capital improvement bonds.
Board officials say that the original capital spending plan did not include the $33 million because the final budget for the move had not yet been approved. Chief Operating Officer Tim Martin says that savings on operating the new facility will be set aside to pay off the bond money. The Pershing Road headquarters, cost about $6 million a year in utilities and maintenance, he says, while the former Com Ed building will cost about $2.3 million a year.
Martin didn’t offer details on how and when the savings would be repaid to the capital fund. “Our financial wizards are working on that,” he says.
School officials say they plan to sell the huge Pershing Road complex for private development. The board purchased it in the 1980s for $1 from the federal government. The recently passed federal budget included a provision making the resale possible.
The move has been not only more expensive but also more drawn-out than expected. When the board closed on the sale of the downtown building last February, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the move was scheduled for April through August. After haggling for months with different moving firms, board officials began the move in August and expect to finish in November. The move was interrupted for several days this fall by Teamster pickets who were protesting the board’s use of a non-union moving firm.
The Medill building will house curriculum support, payroll and several other departments. Martin estimates that no more than 200 people will work there. The board closed the school after enrollment had declined from 453 in 1988 to 274 in 1997, partly because of the redevelopment of the surrounding ABLA homes, a public housing complex.