Jacqueline Leavy

Chicago Public Schools cut a dozen major capital projects from its budget when state lawmakers failed to approve money for school construction. Despite the lack of funds, CPS still needs to do a better job of capital planning, says Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which made the case for a comprehensive facilities plan in a January report. Leavy talked with Consulting Editor Lorraine Forte about how CPS’ capital planning falls short and strategies to fix it.

Is CPS behind the curve on this issue?

They are. New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland—all have been promoting long-range facility planning. There’s an entire discipline around school design that CPS has dabbled in, but there’s a lot more they could do.

Has the district shown leadership in pressing for state construction money?

CPS consistently fails to form meaningful partnerships with stakeholders. Parents, community groups, local school council members, elected officials and developers are all potential partners. With a data-driven, systematic capital needs assessment, people could pull together and make the case to the powers-that-be that we need this money.

The district has said it’s hard to plan because enrollment constantly shifts.

That’s not a legitimate excuse. We acknowledge the complexities of this, and that’s why CPS needs partners.

Your report mentioned a facilities report card. What should be included in that?

It should be available to parents and the public just like the regular school report card. It should include an assessment of the basic structural systems and answer questions like: When was the last time the roof was replaced? Is there adequate planning and meeting space for teachers? Do we have adequate classroom space to support the curriculum? And we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The Los Angeles Unified School District has a wonderful report card that provides a numeric score based on whether or not schools comply with health, safety and environmental codes, and lays out a timetable for correcting code violations. It’s available on their Web site, so if you’re a parent in a school that’s had some problems, you can go there and see what’s wrong, when it’s supposed to be fixed and when it’s cleared up.

Your report states that since CPS issued its first capital budget in 1996, $229 million in projects “disappeared.” Explain that.

CPS has downgraded the quality of the capital budget document. We had a blue-ribbon advisory committee in place for a couple of years and we had convinced CPS to use a budgeting template that laid things out clearly school by school and tracked projects. We don’t have that any longer. So they may promise a budget in a given year and then decide to reallocate those funds to a different project, and there’s not a transparent tracking system to see that. If you’re a principal, a local school council chair or a parent and you’ve been expecting certain improvements and then they don’t happen, you’re left scratching your head wondering why. That’s unfortunate because this is the public’s money and these are public spaces.

Some of the new schools being created under Renaissance 2010 will be in existing schools. How does that affect capital planning?

Unless CPS shows the public that they’re getting supplementary funding, we have to assume that all the dollars that are targeted to buildings that will house Renaissance schools are being taken away from current capital plans. We’re not saying that should never happen, but CPS is totally lacking a process for doing that fairly and balancing facility needs.

What has been the reaction to your report?

We’re looking forward to having meetings with CPS personnel. Principals and teachers are very excited, and we’ve gotten support from other civic and educational reform groups. If we’re going to claim to be a world-class city and a leader in education reform, we need to ratchet up our commitment to ensuring equity so all facilities are a gateway to student success and a place where highly qualified teachers are going to be excited about teaching and want to stay.

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