GAGE PARK — With two community forums on Wednesday, CPS has wrapped up feedback sessions for a “facilities master plan” that aims to offer a roadmap for its school buildings for the next 10 years and outline “the significant long-term financial difficulties it faces over the next decade.”
But some local groups say the school district’s state-mandated plan is far from thorough. In fact, they say it’s no plan at all.
“There is no mission or vision, no timeline, no financial plan. We do not know who will implement a 10-Year Facilities Plan or oversee it. What this document is is an argument for closing 50 schools and a status report,” Jennie Biggs, a Bridgeport parent and activist in the Illinois Raise Your Hand and Bridgeport Alliance groups, said in a prepared statement.
The Educational Facilities Master Plan, available on the CPS website, was released in May. The district has until Oct. 1 to finalize the plan and has hosted a series of community forums seeking input on the document, including Wednesday’s sparsely attended session at Gage Park High School, 5630 S. Rockwell St.
Todd Babbitz, the CPS chief transformation officer, offered up a lengthy introduction on the plan’s merits, saying the district calculates it would cost some $350 million annually for the district to “run in place” and prevent the need for repairs and improvements from growing.
That's compounded with the money CPS "pushes out" each year to individual schools for staffing and programs, he said.
“Unless we’re able to alter our financial picture, we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions,” Babbitz said.
Despite the closing of 50 schools in the spring, reported multimillion dollar cuts to the CPS central office and thousands of layoffs in recent years, the district continues to report a looming $1 billion budget deficit.
Already frustrated by deep budget cuts resulting from the district’s new per-pupil budgeting, faculty and students from Southwest Side schools stepped up to the microphone in the muggy auditorium and outlined their concerns.
John Nichols, principal of Canaryville’s Graham Elementary School, said the plan indicated his school’s annex, which houses about 200 students, “could be removed” and the students sent into the school’s aging main building without air conditioning.
He wants to keep the annex open.
The school has faced a steady decline in enrollment in recent years and Nichols pleaded with CPS leaders to add more academic programs like Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or International Baccalaureate, to help boost recruitment and keep both buildings open.
“I’m going to need updating in our main building in order to consolidate. So actually, to save money, it would be in the board’s interest to help us recruit with additional academic programs, rather than force us to close the well-functioning, air-conditioned annex building,” he said.
Yet, some of the speakers’ requests were even more basic: they were looking for amenities like playground repairs, updated bathrooms and air conditioning.
Amina Henderson, a junior at Gage Park High School, said the temperature in the school’s second-floor gymnasium reached 96 degrees this week — and that was “with two doors and at least 10 windows open.”
Judith Sauri, principal at Richard Edwards Elementary School in Archer Heights, said her school was old, overcrowded and in desperate need of repairs.
Edwards has its main campus at 4815 S. Karlov Ave., which includes the aging building and annex plus two modular classrooms. The school also has a preschool program at 4950 S. Laporte and a kindergarten facility at 5101 S. Keeler Ave.
That means parents scramble to get their students to the right building every day, but it also means Sauri must dispatch teachers across the neighborhood, which chews up valuable instruction time.
The plan doesn't specify any improvements at the school, but indicates CPS will keep working with the community to determine priorities and projects.
“The [CPS] plan hasn’t included any provision for our schools, none whatsoever. They keep putting up patches and patches and patches. Our community wants a new school. The money CPS has to put into this school isn’t worth it,” she said.