NEAR SOUTH SIDE — A controversial land deal for a new $120 million Near South Side high school was narrowly approved by the Chicago Board of Education despite a key lawmaker’s vow to yank the state funds she helped secure for the project.
School board members voted 4-3 Wednesday to buy the land at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue for $10.3 million. The board also voted to approve a land swap deal with the Chicago Housing Authority as part of the deal, and to send the project to the city’s public building commission for design pre-planning.
Under the land swap, the district would lease the land at 24th and State for the high school, putting the general enrollment school on the former site of the Harold Ickes Homes. In return, the housing agency would get the deed for 2 acres at 2240 and the 2300 block of South Wabash Avenue, according to board documents.
Board President Miguel del Valle, former West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr., Paige Ponder and Joyce Chapman voted in favor of the proposals. Scott, Ponder and Chapman were appointed to the school board by Mayor Lori Lightfoot over the summer.
Board members Elizabeth Todd-Breland, Sendhil Revuluri and Sulema Medrano Novak voted no. Medrano Novak also was appointed to the board in July.
The board still must approve a capital budget with the $70 million of CPS funds pledged to build the school.
The school would serve 1,200 students from parts of Armour Square, Bronzeville, Chinatown and the South Loop, with 30 percent of those students Black.
The hotly contested decision comes as already fierce opposition to the project intensified in recent weeks.
Residents and elected officials have long fought for a community high school in the area, saying the lack of options has forced students to travel up to two hours to other neighborhoods.
But many of those proponents also have blasted CPS’ plans to use land set aside for public housing to build the school, saying they want city leaders to consider sites like The 78 megadevelopment or consider repurposing Jones College Prep into a neighborhood school to accommodate the growing number of families in the area. CPS officials have said the 78 site isn’t viable for the school.
People Matter founder Angela Lin, one of the more vocal opponents of the plan, told the board Wednesday organizers have collected over 200 signatures from area families calling for CPS to choose another site.
Other community leaders have said the new high school will siphon students and resources away from under-enrolled, under-funded neighborhood schools that are predominately Black, deepening racial divides in the area.
The Sun-Times and WBEZ reported this week that district officials privately warned officials about that same possibility.
In a confidential memo reporters obtained, senior officials said their preliminary analysis showed the school would “accelerate the enrollment declines in several nearby schools, causing the schools to be constrained financially and academically in providing an equitable learning experience to all students,” according to the report.
Frustrated that city leaders have not seriously considered other locations for the school, state Rep. Theresa Mah told the Sun-Times this week she would push to block the state from releasing the $50 million she helped get approved in the state budget for the school.
“From the moment I became aware that this location was being considered more than a year ago, I cautioned leaders at CPS and the Mayor’s Office that it was a divisive idea and there were a number of reasons why discussion shouldn’t go forward to include this site,” Mah told the board during public comments Wednesday.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez also revealed for the first time Wednesday that $7 million in tax increment financing dollars will be used to buy the Wabash Avenue land the district plans to hand over to the housing agency.
“The way in which the mayor and CPS are pushing forward with this current, controversial and problematic proposal is troubling. There has not been meaningful community engagement with open, public meetings and true dialogue — instead, only manufactured consent at meetings staged by CPS with hand-picked stakeholders,” Mah wrote in a Sun-Times op-ed. “I refuse to be a pawn in the mayor’s game and I refuse to allow my constituents to be used in that fashion.”
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) criticized Mah for threatening to block the state funding, saying Mah and others need to “look beyond parochial politics” to act in the best interest of students.
“The housing issue is a red herring. I’m very disappointed that State Rep. Mah is considering pulling the $50 million from this project. It’s not really about the mayor or CPS. It’s really about the fact that this is not in her district,” Dowell said.
Scott also criticized Mah for a “lapse of judgment,” saying he will withdraw his support for the school if the district doesn’t keep its promise to reinvest in existing schools.
But some residents say neither CPS nor the housing agency have been transparent about their plans and believe the school would only further segregationist policies that have long divided South Side communities.
Organizers from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Lugenia Burns Hope Center, People Matter and the Coalition for Better Chinese American Community have held a series of City Hall protests and town halls after the two agencies entered a land lease agreement in July.
The school is planned for the southernmost portion of the Southbridge mixed-income development site that will include 877 apartments and retail space on 11 acres bounded by Cermak, State, 25th and Dearborn, plus another swath of land east of State Street, according to housing documents. About 244 units will house CHA families.
The first building is complete and the second building is under construction, officials said. So far, 206 mixed-income units have been completed, officials said.
Organizers and neighbors have said there should be no discussion for a school on the land until all 244 units of housing promised to displaced Ickes residents are restored. Some also have expressed concern that the one and two-bedroom units wouldn’t be enough to accommodate families.
Todd-Breland said voting on the measure felt “inappropriate,” saying that if CPS wants to address inequality it should start with the schools currently suffering from underfunding and neglect.
“In a system with declining enrollment and many open seats at surrounding schools — we just saw in the last presentation that while there is a 3 percent increase in South Loop area enrollment, schools in the neighborhoods the school will serve have seen a negative 6 to 10 percent decrease,” Todd-Breland said. “We have 13 high schools within 2 miles of the site. They average 52 percent utilization. … We created a system of school choice in which everyone travels.”
The board was set to vote on the high school in June but Martinez removed from the agenda so the agency could do its “due diligence” in answering questions from the community.
That delay also came hours after a Sun-Times/WBEZ story that questioned the need for a new high school in a district with dwindling enrollment.
“I see nothing but opportunity across the South and West corridor,” said Martinez, adding that the move will ultimately benefit students who need it most.
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