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Mayor Rahm Emanuel unleashes rapid-fire construction plans for CPS

Students head inMelody Elementary Monday first day school West Garfield Park.  |  Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

Students head into Melody Elementary on Monday, the first day of school, in West Garfield Park. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 23, 2013 6:18AM

Chicago Public Schools closed a record 50 schools in June, saying it couldn’t afford to keep “half-empty” buildings open.

In July, slashed school budgets led principals and parents to beg for help, particularly for some tax increment financing money to restore arts teachers, writing programs and toilet paper.

Then suddenly, a week ago, the same mayor who wanted schools closed and has denied declaring a TIF surplus announced the beginning of a school building boom.

During a four-day stretch, Mayor Rahm Emanuel doled out science lab upgrades and playgrounds, a new school and annexes to lessen overcrowding for a total of more than $90 million in big capital spending.

The announcements had much of the city wondering where in the world the money came from, and how, in a district with such need, were these particular projects chosen?

Skeptics point to 2015, when lots of ribbons will be cut by Emanuel during a re-election year. The mayor’s office and CPS officials counter that the money set aside comes with strings that apply to specific situations and cannot be used to hire back staff.

“Most of these projects are getting completed in 2015 when he’s running for re-election,” said Jackson Potter of the Chicago Teachers Union. “That’s not a coincidence.”

How the announcements unfolded:

† Sept. 22: Emanuel told parents a new $35 million elementary school will be built near 104th and South Indianapolis, and cramped Gallistel and Addams elementary schools nearby will receive improvements financed by a mix of TIF and capital money.

† Monday: Wildwood Elementary on the far Northwest Side will get a $15 million annex adding 16 classrooms and a lunchroom, funded by state capital money.

† Tuesday: West Side schools will share improvements worth $24 million in TIF money. Melody and Faraday elementary schools get science, computer and media classrooms; Al Raby High School will receive capital improvements and technical investments for a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program. Four other West Side schools will get new playgrounds.

† Wednesday: Top-rated Walter Payton College Prep High School will get a $17 million TIF-funded annex to add up to 400 seats to the 800-some coveted by students all over the city.

The mayor’s spree of school announcements was aimed at four constituencies: Southeast Side Hispanics and Northwest Side whites whose children are jammed into overcrowded schools; West Side blacks whose kids go to schools that need educational upgrades and safe places to play; and lakefront liberals fighting to get their kids into a selective-enrollment school where seats are slim and competition is fierce.

The blitzkrieg of improvements will allow the mayor to go to groundbreakings and point with pride to construction jackhammers during his re-election campaign.

However, construction of the new school at 104th and Indianapolis will not be completed until 2016, in part because it’s located on a contaminated site near an expressway. The land was sold to CPS by a relative of former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak (10th), whose conviction was tied to an unrelated real estate deal.

In using tax increment financing to pay for school expansions, Emanuel is going beyond the intent of state law, said Rachel Weber, associate professor of planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But he’s not the only municipal leader to do so.

While the state Legislature created TIF districts to promote economic development, they have become a broader funding mechanism for government, but one that eludes scrutiny.

The mayor is “using an economic development tool to pay for capital development in the schools,” Weber said. “We don’t really know why certain schools get funding and others don’t.”

At last count, there were 154 TIF districts in Chicago covering about a third of the city. Inside a TIF district, a portion of property tax revenue that ordinarily would go to local governments is siphoned into a special fund to subsidize public or private projects. The money is spent at City Hall’s discretion and is supposed to improve overall conditions in the TIF district, which is supposed to meet legal standards for being “blighted.” But the definition has been stretched to include downtown Chicago and popular neighborhoods near it.

“I think TIFs are a clout-driven rifle-shot approach to bestowing money on who the mayor wants to bestow money on,” said Tom Tresser, a civic activist and organizer of the TIF Illumination Project, which has made presentations to community groups.

Schools are tax-exempt property, and using TIF money to expand them is counter to the program’s goals, Tresser said. Chicagoans are clamoring for school improvement, but Emanuel is using TIFs to “cherry-pick” those that get help, he said.

Wendy Katten, who leads parent group Raise Your Hand, questioned why the city hasn’t declared a TIF surplus so some money could be used for operations.

“I don’t know why they’re spending all this TIF money on STEM and a selective-enrollment high school that’s 102 percent efficient after decimating school budgets, and schools don’t have the staff to meet their basic needs in a lot of cases makes no sense,” she said. “It’s a shockingly questionable use of funds.

“There’s no process, no one knows who made the decision, why were these areas chosen, and why not use some of the surplus to restore what’s been cut?” Katten said. “A surplus should be declared to first restore cuts before adding new things when you can’t fund what you already have.”

Selection process not so simple

Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, noted that “different TIF circumstances” surround the Payton annex and the $24 million the mayor has committed to upgrade Al Raby High School and two feeder schools.

“The Raby project is using bond proceeds that are designated for school construction and cannot be used as surplus. The Payton project is using future revenues from 2014 and 2015, and you cannot surplus future revenues,” Quinn wrote in an email.

As for the demand to declare a TIF surplus, Quinn said the “annual exercise of going through each TIF to determine what, if any, surplus will be available” next year is under way.

City Hall sources noted that CPS has received $200 million in surplus TIF funds since 2011, including $20 million this year. Most of that money was authorized by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The schools were chosen for funding based on a complex set of factors and determined by several CPS departments, district spokeswoman Becky Carroll said. The Southeast Side schools and Wildwood have been identified as overcrowded in CPS’ 10-Year Educational Facilities Master Plan, the state-required plan scheduled to be finalized by Oct. 1.

“There is rhyme and reason around it,” she said. “Some schools have already been identified not only with a funding source, but with the funding source that’s been able to be married with a project that’s able to move forward. Not every school has a plan that’s ready to move forward.”

CPS set aside a capital project in 2012 for Al Raby pending the school’s decision on its academic focus, which now is a STEM program, Carroll said.

At 175 percent, Wildwood isn’t the most overcrowded in the district, however. Peck, Chavez, Pasteur and Lee elementary schools and Vaughn Occupational High School are more overcrowded, according to the building capacity formula CPS used to close schools.

Carroll said the decision wasn’t based solely on need. “What’s the available funding, is there TIF funding available in this area, what is the need, how long has the need been? How do you prioritize these needs when there’s demand across the board?”

Wildwood’s expansion was made possible by Gov. Pat Quinn’s recent announcement of $89 million in state capital money, $17 million of which had to be used to alleviate overcrowding.

In the end, Carroll said, schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett took “options to the mayor that were all based on community input and they worked together to evaluate all the factors necessary to determine which projects would be announced over this past week.”

Not all sold on the plans

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) questioned Emanuel’s decision to go on a school building binge without public input, even as CPS holds hearings on the 10-year facilities plan to determine where new schools are needed.

“Payton is a good school. I’m the first to say it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the money is spent wisely. This is our third or fourth school he’s announcing in a couple of days. People can welcome it, but at what cost to the rest of the city and what is the proper approach without community input?”

Fioretti urged Emanuel to do what the City Council’s Progressive Caucus has demanded: scour Chicago’s 165 TIF districts for surplus funds that could be used to reverse some of the 3,000 teacher and staff layoffs that, he claims, threaten to make a mockery of the mayor’s vaunted longer school day.

“Continually using TIF money to build schools doesn’t get to the point of being able to pay for teachers and staff and all of the other needs we have in our school system in light of the fact that we closed 50 schools,” he said.

“He’s spending money just to spend money. We’re making all of these commitments on TIF funds. What are our education policies? Who is going to benefit and who will suffer? If we’re going to spend any type of TIF money, we should have community input,” Fioretti said.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said Emanuel’s school-construction blitz doesn’t sit well with African-Americans on the heels of nearly 50 school closings, most of them on the South and West sides.

“It sends a mixed message when you sold the school closings on the fact that we had too many schools that were being underutilized. Now, after we close them, we appear to be building more capacity. It doesn’t look right,” said Brookins, who served on the mayor’s school closing commission.

African-American voters helped put Emanuel in office on the strength of President Barack Obama’s endorsement of his former chief of staff.

But the mayor’s black support has been declining because of persistent crime, the teachers strike and school closings that, the Chicago Teachers Union has argued, was “directed toward” the African-American community.

The school construction spree, particularly the $17 million annex at Payton, “could be another log on the fire,” Brookins said.

“If more African-American kids are able to get into these schools, it’s a gamble that could work well for him. If not, it could backfire,” the alderman said.

CTU staff coordinator Jackson Potter called the choices “random” and “unfair,” citing a 2012 study conducted by Roosevelt University professor Stephanie Farmer that found that selective-enrollment schools accounted for 1 percent of all CPS schools but received 24 percent of all TIF money spent on school construction projects.

“This kind of haphazard, ‘I’m going to pick winners and losers on any given day when there’s no plan to ensure all the cuts we’ve experienced are going to be dealt with in a fair and equitable manner,’ reveals irresponsible policy at best,” Potter said. “He’s picking places where he can shore up political support, but it’s not a method that is systematic or fair,” he said of Northwest Side white parents and Southeast Side Latinos.

“Or is it because Wildwood parents have been so vocal and Gallistel parents have been so vocal? And unless parents are screaming every month at board meetings?

“How is this a master plan?” Potter said. “This is a piecemeal failure to serve the majority of schools in our system.”

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