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Emanuel defends school additions, improvements after CPS closures

Mayor Rahm Emanuel huddles with principal Al Raby High School after announcing $24 milliinvestment improve science technology engineering math educatiRaby

Mayor Rahm Emanuel huddles with the principal of Al Raby High School after announcing a $24 million investment to improve science, technology, engineering and math education at Raby and two of its feeder schools, Faraday and Melody elementary schools. | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 19, 2013 7:07PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday defended his decision to build new schools and school additions, even after closing nearly 50 schools and laying off 3,000 school employees to close a $1 billion deficit triggered by skyrocketing pension obligations.

The mayor defended the surprise wave of capital spending hours after unveiling plans to spend $24 million in tax-increment-financing funds to advance science, technology engineering and math education at three Chicago Public Schools: Al Raby High School and Faraday and Melody elementary schools.

It marked the third straight day that a mayor who closed nearly 50 public schools, most of them on the South and West Sides, has announced plans to build new schools and expand existing ones.

“While we have a fiscal challenge of a $1 billion deficit, the deficit on the capital facilities side, the report will come out [and] will show you close to $3 billion to $4 billion. We’re barely scratching the surface. I want to do much, much more than we have the resources to do,” Emanuel said.

“But I don’t think the kids at Melody and Faraday should miss out on a STEM education, which is crucial. I don’t think kids at Wildwood should be using the hallway for a classroom when they’re a No. 1-rated school [and] their principal two years in a row got a performance pay [raise] because they’re making major academic gains. We [need to] make those investments.”

Emanuel argued that all of the schools earmarked for capital investments are in “dire” need.

So is the Southeast Side, which is getting upgrades to two overcrowded schools and construction of a new school on a polluted parcel of land near an expressway once owned by the relative of a convicted former alderman.

“But here’s the breaking news: There’s much more to do than we have the resources, and we’re gonna continue to make the tough choices. ... Even when we did the school action, 50 of those [receiving] schools got major upgrades that in the past, we never could make those upgrades,” he said.

The City Council’s Progressive Caucus has introduced an ordinance mandating that Chicago’s 165 TIF districts be scoured for surplus funds that could be used to reverse some of the 3,000 teacher and staff layoffs that, the aldermen claim, threaten to make a mockery of the longer school day.

By setting aside another $24 million in TIF funds for school construction, the mayor has made it clear, once again, that the Progressive Caucus ordinance is going nowhere.

He has also signaled his intention to forge ahead with school construction and additions, even after pulling the plug on the privatization of Midway Airport, which would have been the biggest source of funding for it.

“You act as if it’s an either-or choice, which is a false choice to present in front of the public,” Emanuel said, lecturing a reporter who questioned his priorities for TIF spending.

“There’s a difference between an operating budget and a capital budget. ... TIF dollars are for investments in infrastructure and capital. It’s very specific. It’s what is written.”

The $24 million in TIF funding will give Raby new specialty programs and new classrooms tailor-made to promote them. They include a computer lab and collaborative space for engineering, a mock court area for law and public safety classes, computer labs for food science and a TV studio for broadcast and sound engineering.

Raby will also get air conditioning, elevator upgrades, electrical, boiler and plumbing improvements.

Faraday Elementary, a feeder school for Raby, will get improved wireless Internet, new engineering labs and a media classroom to record and edit movies.

At Melody Elementary, investments include a new science lab, computer lab and media classroom that will make the East Garfield Park school another viable STEM option.

On Monday, Emanuel announced a planned addition to Wildwood Elementary to help ease overcrowding at that Edgebrook school. On Sunday, he announced plans to use state capital funding to build a new, $35 million school at 104th and Indianapolis and spend $1 million in TIF money to improve overcrowded Gallistel and Jane Addams schools.


Twitter: @fspielman

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