As part of preparing a new $659 school construction and capital spending plan, officials used a new formula to determine school utilization. In the process, they determined that the district has 130,000 empty seats–a quarter of the seats available in schools throughout the city.

That figure, a result of the district’s declining enrollment, shows the extent of building under-utilization throughout CPS. Yet when deciding how to invest their capital improvement dollars, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said Thursday that officials steered away from buildings that might be shut down in the next five to 10 years.

The situation underscores the conundrum facing the district: A lot of schools are under-utilized and could be closed but, at the same time, leaders are intent on opening new schools.

Cawley said there is no list of schools that might be targeted for closure in the coming years. Some schools could improve academically, attract more students and become viable once again.

“It is not fair to count schools out,” said Cawley. The plan was supposed to be outlined in Wednesday’s School Board meeting, but the meeting was effectively shut down by protesters against school closings.

Among the plans are technology upgrades, new early childhood centers, security cameras at 14 high schools, upgrades to school kitchens and renovations geared to high school career programs, as well as new construction. Here’s a complete list.

Better buildings, better education

On the other hand, Cawley acknowledged that a “synergy” exists between rehabbing a building and improving academics. For that reason, he said, the district plans to spend $25 million on renovating eight schools targeted for turnaround, which entails replacing a school’s entire staff and making a substantial investment in teacher training. 

“We believe that we get more bang for our buck if the capital improvements happen with a program change,” he said.

The biggest turnaround renovation is at Chicago Vocational Career Academy, where the district plans to spend $75 million. The state legislature earmarked $75 million to improve the big, aging building in 2009. At the moment, netting is draped on the school to catch cracking brick.

“No one had moved on it until now,” Cawley said.

Even with the glut of vacant seats, Cawley said the district needs more capacity on the Southwest and Northwest sides of town, where school overcrowding is driven by a burgeoning Latino population. Hale, which is set for a new addition, is two-thirds Latino. The new Southeast Side Elementary School is in an area that is Latino and African American.

More space is also being created in schools on the North Side and near the center of the city. In these areas, upper-middle class families, most of them white, are clamoring to send their students to public schools that have earned a good reputation. Bell Elementary in North Center and Edison Park in Norwood Park are both slated for additions.

CPS leaders also are setting aside $96 million to build Jones College Prep, a selective enrollment school in the South Loop. Last year, the administration allocated $24 million for the project. The new building will be built next door to the current location.

Cawley would not say what CPS leaders would like to see happen to the existing Jones building, though he said they have “a plan.” With that area increasingly home to families with school-aged children, local schools have experienced a space crunch.

In the South Loop, parents have complained that they do not have a good neighborhood high school. The closest neighborhood high school is Dunbar Vocational, a lower-performing school that is miles away at South 30th Street and King Drive.

Helping charters, contract schools

Some of the money will go to rehab buildings where charter and contract schools are set to open up. Crane High on the West Side, where Chicago Talent Development High School is slated to move, and Nash, which will house the new ACT charter, will get renovations to their interior.

Of note: Lathrop Elementary in North Lawndale, which has just 88 students and is slated to close in June, will get improvements. While officials did not make clear any plans for the school, community activists have noted that, in the past, renovations have been a signal that a charter or other new school was about to take over a building.

The district’s plan includes $9.9 million to build new early childcare centers in Chicago. Of that, the lion’s share – $9 million – is money that CPS expects to get from the state’s first early-childhood capital funding program. The rest is a required 10 percent matching contribution from the district.

Some of the money will go to programs run by community organizations. Those haven’t yet been specified. But the rest will go to Camras, Hanson Park, McCormick and Locke elementary schools. Of those, two – Camras and Hanson Park – are in Belmont-Cragin. That is the community area with the second-highest demand for early childhood spots in Chicago, according to an Illinois Facilities Fund report.

Locke Elementary, in Montclare, is close to Belmont-Cragin and to Portage Park, another high-need area. McCormick Elementary, in South Lawndale, is near Brighton Park – the community most in need of spots.

Cawley acknowledged that some might not agree with how CPS planned to spend its limited capital improvement dollars. “But we are the district leaders and it is our decision,” he said.

The money for the new Jones building and the Bell addition will come from the city of Chicago. Some of it is tax-increment financing money. The state of Illinois and the federal government also will fund some of the capital improvement projects.

About 60 percent of the $659 million is from CPS, most of which is raised by selling bonds. A lot of the money will be spent on smaller projects to fix up old buildings. Cawley said the average CPS building is more than 70 years old.

But the district doesn’t have any money to install air conditioning, even though nearly half of elementary schools are now on a year-round calendar and start in August.

It is difficult to compare this year’s capital spending to previous years because some past administrations included city- funded and-state funded projects, while others did not.

Cawley said that city-funded and state- funded projects often went under the radar without CPS officials ever discussing the rationale for doing them. He said the new process is more rigorous and transparent.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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