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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Local Alderman Joins State Rep, Activists In Pledging To Block Controversial Near South Side High School

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez and State Rep. Theresa Mah said they will try to halt millions in state and city funding until city leaders make good on their promise to engage the community.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) talks at a protest opposing a controversial Near South Side high school plan outside of Chicago Public Schools' headquarters Wednesday.
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SOUTH LOOP — A coalition of Bronzeville and Chinatown organizers who have opposed plans for a $120 million Near South Side high school on former public housing land are getting support from lawmakers vowing to use their influence in City Council and the state legislature to kill the proposal.

The group protested outside of Chicago Public Schools’ headquarters, 42 W. Madison St., Wednesday, blasting Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS for pushing through the controversial deal and accusing administrators of scooping up land set aside for public housing to make the school a reality.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), whose ward includes neighborhoods the high school would serve, also joined the protest. State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-IL), long a key proponent for the project, has backed the organizers and pledged to yank critical state funding for the school.

“Chinatown residents have said so many times that we do not want this school at 24th and State,” said Angela Lin, co-founder of People Matter, one of the organizations protesting the plans. “We need a school, but CPS is capitalizing on the community’s need to pit us against each other.”

The Chicago Board of Education narrowly approved starting the process to build the new open-enrollment high school on the site of the former Harold Ickes Homes on 24th and State streets last week.

The board voted 4-3 to buy land at 23rd and Wabash for $10.3 million, and approved a land swap with the Chicago Housing Authority and design pre-planning for the project.

Part of the State Street land already is being redeveloped into the Southbridge mixed-income development that is to include 244 apartments for CHA families. The district plans to build the high school on the southernmost portion of that property, leasing that land from the housing agency. The district would then trade the deed for the land on Wabash to the housing agency to complete the Southbridge development.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The proposed site for a new CPS high school, a vacant lot at 24th and State streets where the former Harold L. Ickes Homes sat, on July 26, 2022.

Organizers and some elected leaders have urged CPS to consider other locations for the school, and have questioned the housing agency’s commitment to building all the promised units.

Sigcho-Lopez said he would rally fellow aldermen to vote down the city’s effort to approve $7 million in TIF funding to buy the Wabash Avenue land as part of the deal.

“When we don’t have deliberation or due process to listen or prioritize the needs of our community, we end up with these kind of decisions that do not represent the best interests of our community at large,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

In an interview with Block Club, Mah reiterated her plan to ask Gov. JB Pritzker not to release the $50 million in state funding she initially secured for the school.

Mah, who has been fighting to get a school that would meet the needs of families in Chinatown, Bridgeport and Armour Square, said Lightfoot is using the issue to boost support for her reelection campaign.

“There has to be robust community engagement and full consideration of other sites. Show us why The 78 isn’t viable. Where are the studies? Where’s the data?” Mah told Block Club. “I’m astounded by the irresponsibility of the board who insist on pushing this through when funding hasn’t been fully secured.”

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.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
State Representative Theresa Mah.

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 the housing agency and CPS entered a land lease agreement in July.

The coalition challenged claims from city leaders they had engaged residents on the issue. They said hundreds of people they spoke with either had no idea the school was being proposed or were completely against the plan.

While the group has offered alternatives — including repurposing part of Jones College Prep to accommodate families living nearby — they say they’ve been ignored.

Mah also shares the coalition’s concern that the school would jeopardize the future of neighboring high schools like Phillips and Dunbar — both schools suffering from under-enrollment and disinvestment through the years.

Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago
People Matter co-founder Angela Lin talks to the media ahead of a protest outside of Chicago Public Schools’ headquarters Wednesday.

A recent Sun-Times and WBEZ report showed that district officials were also warned of that outcome. A confidential memo containing preliminary analysis said 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.”

Roderick Wilson, the Lugenia Burns executive director, said CPS’s latest move shows why an elected school board is needed now instead of later, noting that three of Lightfoot’s four recent appointees — including ally and former alderman Michael Scott Jr. — voted to approve the proposal.

Longtime board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland was among those who voted no, accusing CPS of pushing the project to the front of the line at the expense of schools in desperate need of resources.

“I was encouraged by what Breland said but the deck is stacked,” Wilson said. “[The city] is manufacturing crisis from bad policy, and we’re hoping to leverage whatever power we have on a state and federal level to stop it.”

The board still must approve a capital budget with the $70 million of CPS funds pledged to build the school.

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