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Going long for Payton a good call

Walter PaytCollege Prep. | Sun-Times file photo

Walter Payton College Prep. | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: October 24, 2013 6:10AM

It is easy, on the face of it, to knock Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to spend $17 million on an addition to Payton College Prep, an elite selective enrollment public high school on the Near North Side.

And it’s just as easy to knock Emanuel for the rest of the spending spree he announced last week — another $75 million on seven other schools, mostly to relieve overcrowding.

But, sorry, we’re not jumping on that bandwagon.

By and large, these were good calls that make a small dent in the mountain of need in Chicago.

The optics are terrible, we get that. The news comes on the heels of the closure of 48 schools for low enrollment, as well as major teacher layoffs and severe budget cuts. And Emanuel didn’t do himself any favors with the way he delivered the news — in a hurry, taking few questions, without any clear criteria why these schools and not others.

But these are spending decisions that generally make sense, financially and otherwise.

Payton is one of 10 selective schools in Chicago where, in total, 18,000 students last year vied for 3,000 seats. At Payton, 6,200 students competed for just 220 spots.

The demand is intense and Emanuel should try to meet it.

Is Payton’s student body disproportionately white and middle-class compared to the rest of CPS? Yes, and some Chicagoans are screaming bloody murder. We might too if Payton were the only high school Emanuel was investing in.

But it’s not.

Emanuel also is spending Chicago’s extremely limited resources on neighborhood schools and in less affluent areas. The same week as the Payton announcement, Emanuel said CPS would spend $24 million in tax-increment financing dollars in East Garfield Park, to advance science and math education at Al Raby High and its two feeder elementary schools.

Over the last two years, CPS also has invested in many neighborhood high schools, opening or expanding 11 International Baccalaureate programs and starting early college programs at five others, where students can earn an associate’s degree. In the last four years. CPS also opened selective enrollment schools in South Shore and East Garfield Park.

Whether these programs succeed, particularly given budget cuts this year, remains to be seen. And other neighborhood schools have seen disinvestment. But there’s little doubt of an effort.

The public understandably demands to know how CPS can open or expand schools when it’s closing others and laying off teachers.

First, Chicago is a huge city, with pockets of declining enrollment as well as smaller pockets of growth and in some cases severe school overcrowding. CPS says about 50 schools are overcrowded, a number we and others believe is deflated by the flawed formula CPS uses, which allows for up to 36 students per classroom.

If Emanuel can address this problem anywhere, he should, as he did last week at long-suffering, overcrowded schools in Edgebrook and on the Southeast Side — though the Southeast community deserves more input into their overcrowding relief plan. Generally, the public is right to demand a more inclusive, transparent process for picking capital projects.

Why not use this $92 million in construction money to re-hire laid off teachers or restore programs lost to budget cuts?

Because CPS can’t. Payton and Raby will come from TIF dollars from the areas where those schools are located, which can’t go for operating costs. But the mayor still should declare a TIF surplus, even if it’s modest, so extra operating dollars could go to schools. In TIF districts, property value is frozen and growth beyond that is set aside for 23 years to pay for public works and economic development in individual districts. Any surplus is supposed to be returned to the city’s taxing districts, the largest of which is the schools.

The other capital projects announced last week will be paid for with a small windfall of state construction dollars, which also can’t be used for operating. That money also has restrictions on it which dictate which of the many worthy schools move to the front of construction line.

Critics say TIF dollars shouldn’t go to Payton, especially since selective enrollment schools have gotten a disproportionate amount of the TIF dollars earmarked for school construction or upgrades since 1986, according to research by a Roosevelt University sociologist. This is partly explained by the fact that many of these schools are new and it’s so costly to construct a new building,

But consider this as well: Not all schools sit in TIF districts and not all TIFs generate revenue equally. So when CPS uses TIF dollars where it can, that can free up CPS’ other scarce capital dollars to be spent elsewhere.

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