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Struggling schools to reap millions in construction dollars

Updated: December 15, 2011 9:48PM

Nine Chicago Public Schools targeted for turnarounds or closure will reap nearly $110 million of $660 million in construction dollars -- an investment district officials defended Thursday as necessary to give them a true “fresh start.’’

Critics have long complained that CPS should be investing money in struggling schools to help them rise above their challenges, rather than plowing money into them just before they are handed over to new leadership or an outside operator.

CPS believes it gets “more bang for the buck’’ when it couples rehab work on a building with a new academic program or turnaround, CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said.

“Creating a positive interior when nothing else has changed at the school doesn’t get you the same return as when it’s a fresh start,’’ Cawley said. “We believe it reinforces that it’s a new day.’’

Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School would grab the biggest chunk of the “fresh-start” rehab dollars, pulling in $75 million for roof replacement, masonry reconstruction and dining area renovations, among other things. CPS Office of School Improvement is expected to oversee that turnaround, which involves giving the entire staff pink slips.

Six schools being turned around by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, where Cawley once worked, will reap $25.7 million in rehab work.

Crane High, which is being phased out and eventually taken over by Talent Development Charter High, will net $7.3 million in construction dollars.

Don Moore of Designs for Change said there’s a “circular logic’’ to the notion that schools shouldn’t be spruced up physically until they are so bad off academically that someone else must take them over.

“If you look at what has happened on the near South Side, CPS has systematically neglected the physical needs of those schools and that undermines the academic program,’’ Moore said. “If you have schools with gross physical inadequacies, then it makes it very hard for students to learn.’’

Cawley said the $660 million capital plan for this school year includes some funding -- such as Federal Communications Commission E-rate funds -- that were kept “under the radar’’ previously. The release of the capital plan is an attempt to “open the curtain and let people come in and see how things get done here.’’

Academy of Urban School Leadership turnaround schools getting rehab money are: Fuller Elementary ($3.2 million); Marquette Elementary ($4 million); Piccolo Elementary ($3.5 million), Stagg Elementary ($1 million); Casals Elementary ($5 million) and Herzl Elementary ($9 million). CPS turnaround schools due for construction dollars are Woodson South ($200,000) and Chicago Vocational.

Cawley Thursday walked reporters through a powerpoint presentation that was interrupted Wednesday when protestors upset about school closings and turnovers took over the meeting with a repeated protest chants.

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