Video: Jesse Sharkey, the outgoing president of the Chicago Teachers Union; Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability; and Laurence Msall, president of The Civic Federation join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the Chicago Public Schools budget for the coming year. (Produced by Jennifer Cotto)
Plans for a new Near South high school were suddenly put on hold Wednesday after Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez abruptly removed the item before the city’s Board of Education voted to approve the district’s budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.
The board voted to approve new capital and operating budgets for the 2023 fiscal year during Wednesday’s monthly meeting. But one item board members didn’t get to vote on was a plan to spend $120 million on a new high school on the Near South Side.
That had been included in the district’s capital budget until it was temporarily pulled by Martinez in a surprise move at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I don’t want to bring an item with such complexity to the board unless I am sure we are answering all the key questions in the community,” he said. “And I still saw a lot of questions coming into today. So I’d like to take more time just to make sure we are answering those questions, because it is so complex.”
The decision seemed to catch some board members off guard, including Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who asked Martinez what changed between Tuesday and Wednesday to lead him to pull that item.
“I just want to spend more time making sure that we do our due diligence to answer those questions because we’re trying to address a need,” Martinez said, “and frankly, we need to make sure the community sees it that way.”
Martinez noted that conversations about adding this school have been ongoing for years, and said the cost would be split between $70 million in district funding and $50 million in state dollars specifically allocated for this construction.
The Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ this week reported on community members and officials who’d questioned the need for the new school amid declining CPS enrollment. Others have said the proposed school would harm existing schools in the area by pulling more students from those classrooms.
“How can CPS ignore the underutilized, predominantly Black students in schools in this geographic area,” the Chicago Teachers Union said in a tweet.
Todd-Breland noted that there are already 13 existing high schools within a two-mile radius of the proposed site for the new high school, and she believes those schools would be adversely impacted if this plan were to go forward.
“I do not feel to this point … that the district has demonstrated a need for a high school in this community,” she said. “I don’t think it makes sense to open a new school when we aren’t meeting the needs of our current schools, which have ongoing declining enrollment.”
Todd-Breland also criticized a perceived lack of community engagement over the plan. While she was pleased Martinez pulled the vote Wednesday to “answer questions,” she said doing so when a decision has already been made is not the same as “authentic engagement.”
Chinatown community activists speaking Wednesday said there has been a need for a community high school in that area for decades, but efforts have repeatedly been derailed.
“A new Chinatown-Bridgeport-Near South high school would be the most culturally, socially and ethnically diverse high school in the CPS system, that could provide a rich experience for all students and become a model of innovation for other urban public schools,” community leader C.W. Chan said during the meeting.
While the proposal stalled Wednesday, Martinez does plan to bring it back to the board for a vote again in the “near future.”
The district’s new $9.5 billion budget will increase school-level funding by more than $240 million and add more than 1,600 new full-time positions across the city in the 2023 fiscal year.
Those new positions include more than 500 teaching spots, 745 school support staff, such as classroom paraprofessionals, case managers, security guards and 155 other student support personnel.
CPS will also provide $50 million in equity grants — an increase of $14 million — to help fund 238 under-enrolled schools, as well as another $5 million to help “provide stability and limit budget reductions” at schools that see more severe enrollment declines.
While CPS has touted an overall increase in its school-level funding, parents, community leaders and some city officials have criticized budget cuts at schools that have seen declining enrollment, calling on the district to do more to ensure students are getting the education and support they need.
CPS has said it lost some 25,000 students since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Martinez on Wednesday pointed to those “persistent” enrollment declines that have forced “difficult” staffing decisions at schools across the city.
“We don’t see schools that lose enrollment and then all of a sudden gain it back in a year,” he said. “In fact, we’ve seen the opposite. We see continued enrollment declines and it is a challenge because it does displace staff because if the resources don’t follow the students, it creates inequities within our system and even within the same neighborhoods.”
Wednesday’s meeting also marked the first for new board member Joyce Chapman, who was appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot earlier this month. That meant the board had each of its seven seats filled for the first time in nearly a year — but it likely won’t last for long, as current members Lucino Sotelo and Luisiana Meléndez will be stepping down at the end of June.
Lightfoot will be able to appoint new members to fill those seats before the board begins transitioning into an elected body beginning in 2024.
This story will be updated with video.