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Board of Education OKs master plan for school buildings

Updated: October 28, 2013 7:14AM

Months after voting to close a record number of schools, Chicago’s Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to approve its first “blueprint for facilities investments over the next decade.”

Going into the vote, several board members still had substantive questions about the final document and its purpose.

Mandated by the state to help the district deal with capital planning, the Educational Facilities Master Plan accounts for building conditions and needs and lays out district investing priorities such as libraries in all schools and alleviating overcrowding. Released in draft form in May, it accounts for a total of $3.5 billion in needed school repairs districtwide, according Todd Babbitz, chief of transformation at CPS. But contrary to its name, the blueprint does not lay out any kind of spending plan for the next 10 years, a fact not lost on board member HenryBienen.

“I’m a little puzzled because at the end of the Facilities Master Plan, a number of items are listed, maintenance and repair, air conditioning, etc.,” Bienen said. “They have a price tag. And we all know that the cumulative price tag is much bigger than our resources. So this may be a plan in some sense but it is not a project plan. . . . It doesn’t tell me what the priorities are inside all these items, much less where they would go. . . . A plan would be, ‘We’re going to spend X amount of money on these items.’ ”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was the first of many to ask the board to consider taking more time before voting. She said the plan is still vague, should be easier for ordinary people to use and doesn’t yet spell out a clear process for how the district might enact the listed projects.

“It’s kind of hard to find your school, if you don’t know the new made-up communities, that I would highly highly highly ask that you not utilize because it makes research very difficult,” she said. “It would really behoove you to wait just a little bit. Ask for another extension. I’m sure Springfield will give it to you just to get this right. Even though it’s a living document, let’s not have the first one be at a minimum pass level.”

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a slew of big school capital investments in four pockets of the city — totaling more than $90 million using tax-increment financing district and state money — but with little public explanation of how he arrived at those choices.

Board members Andrea Zopp and Jesse Ruiz questioned how recent investment decisions were made and how the cash-strapped district would determine funding going forward in a clear and public manner.

“One question that’s going to come up is, how are we going to prioritize, what is the process for prioritizing and making decisions given the limited resources that we have about what we’re going to do?” Zoppsaid. “Are you going to build a new school or beef up and improve the existing selective-enrollment schools we have to make them competitve so the seats we have are being used? How are we going to decide which overcrowded schools we’re going to address? Which additions are the ones we’re going to go to first? What’s the process for getting down to thespecifics?”

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and some parents from Lincoln Elementary School, considered to be at 124 percent capacity or four points above what CPS considers “efficient,” urged CPS to fund a new middle-school building, estimated to cost $30 million to $50 million, in the former Children’s Hospital at the Lincoln-Fullerton-Halsted intersection. The school has leased some classroom space at DePaul University to alleviate overcrowding; it is not part of the Master Plan.

But neighbors who oppose the project say Lincoln is far down on the list of the district’s overcrowded list, around number 50, and that other excellent schools in the neighborhood have plenty of space for more children.

“The ironies and stark contrasts among schools is what makes people so cynical,” saidCaroline Vickrey of Lincoln’s Local School Council. “We know that Lincoln does not in any way make the list in the master plan. If Lincoln ends up getting funded, it’s clear the master facilities plan is being tossed aside for the privileged and politically connected few.”

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