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CPS cuts into schools’ cellphone tower cash deals

Victori'Tori' Bens35 is Local School Council chair  Portage Park Elementary School. The school has two cellphone towers roof. CPS

Victoria "Tori" Benson, 35, is the Local School Council chair at Portage Park Elementary School. The school has two cellphone towers on the roof. CPS will now take two-thirds of the income that the towers bring in. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 10, 2013 6:05AM

It was a way for a number of cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools to generate a little extra income on their own: leasing roof space to cellular phone companies looking for a place to erect their towers.

But now CPS is putting the arm on the schools, allowing them to keep only a third of the money they raise.

The change was quietly slipped through, surprising school administrators in an already tumultuous budget year.

The district told them, via their new budgets for the year, that the schools could have just a third of that money and the other two-thirds would be distributed to the rest of CPS schools.

In a $5 billion budget for the district of about 400,000 children, the $4.2 million generated by about 140 cellphone leases at some 95 schools could run a CPS elementary school.

CPS officials say it’s only fair to spread the money around since all schools are hurting.

But at schools already staring down deep cuts in their draft budgets, the tens of thousands of dollars matter. They mean extra aides and supplies and equipment.

“It’s scary. Why are we working so hard for our school if you’re just stepping in and taking it anyhow?” said Victoria Benson, local school council chairwoman at Portage Park Elementary. “We’ve had that money every year. It’s that comfort money.”

Portage Park, 5330 W. Berteau, generates about $60,000 from leases to two cellphone companies that put towers on the roof. Last year, the money paid for substitutes when teachers had special education meetings, for security guard overtime and badges, and for a new school marquee and website that keeps parents better informed.

The school of about 1,100 kids is 81 percent low income. Under CPS’ new student-based budgeting system, Portage Park lost $800,000 compared to last year’s budget. Add in the extra things the school now needs to pay for that used to be supplied by Central Office — such as soap and toilet paper — and the cuts now feel more like $900,000, Benson said.

Other schools had more to lose. Mount Greenwood Elementary School, 10841 S. Homan, pulls in about $61,500 from two towers. Bogan High School, 3939 W. 79th St., earns $67,500 from cell towers. Amundsen High School, 5110 N Damen, makes about $95,000, Onahan Elementary School, 6634 W. Raven, about $108,000, and Thorp Elementary Scholastic Academy, 6024 W. Warwick, about $114,000.

Topping the list, according to CPS records is Steinmetz College Prep High School, 3030 N. Mobile, with about $117,750 from three cellular contracts. Most of the best deals are on the North and Northwest Sides, rather than the impoverished South and West sides.

Benson does feel bad that other schools don’t have the same opportunities to lease space. “They should have the same.”

The district is trying to redistribute the money among all its schools. But the two-thirds of the money — approximately $2.8 million — won’t show up as a separate cell tower line item to the rest of the schools,CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said.

It’s already been redistributed as part of the new school-based budget formula. Each of the schools that doesn’t have a tower lease will see slightly more money per pupil, she said. She could not provide exact figures.

“In a time of financial crisis — and of this magnitude — we need to do all we can to mitigate impacts on all schools,” Quinn said. “Cell tower revenue should benefit all schools but we have allowed those with cell towers to keep a portion of the revenue generated at their school.”

Other kinds of leases have not been touched — fields and auditoriums and parking spaces leased to Zipcar — according to the district and several LSCs.

Not yet, anyway, said Tony Porfirio, LSC chair of Blaine Elementary School in Lake View, which abuts a particularly congested segment of Southport Avenue near the Music Box Theater and half a mile west of Wrigley Field.

The Lake View school doesn’t have a cell tower agreement anymore, but it does lease its auditorium and some classrooms to a church on Sundays, and its parking lot is frequently used during Cubs games on nights and weekends. The church deal yields it about $34,000 a year, according to the lease documents; the parking deal is worth another $60,000.

Last year, Porfirio said, that extra money paid for a long list of goods: printer supplies, field trip buses, professional development on using technology, refurbished iPads and part of a learning program used during study hall for enrichment. And this year, Blaine stands to lose about $600,000 overall over last year, threatening the school’s arts programs.

Without the lease buffer, Porfirio said, “I don’t even know where we’d go.”

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