LINCOLN PARK — After more than two years of heated debate on how to solve the overcrowding problem at Lincoln Elementary, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Monday that CPS will build an annex on the playground at the Lincoln Park school.
At a hastily called event Monday afternoon at the school, Emanuel said Chicago Public Schools will build a three-story, 19-classroom annex at the school at 615 W. Kemper Place. The addition will increase the school's capacity by 420 students.]
"For all of you who have been waiting for this day, praying for this day, going to meetings on days that rain, snow and sleet, this is your day," Emanuel said, surrounded by students in Lincoln's gym, as shown on a video of the announcement posted online. "This is your future, and congratulations to the children of the City of Chicago."
Lincoln has 813 students enrolled for the 2013-2014 school year, but its ideal capacity is listed at 660 students. Its utilization rate is 129 percent, according to CPS.
The proposed 41,315-square-foot annex will be built on the site of the school's paved play area, but will include an open-air play space on the roof to make up for the loss of recess space.
"What a happy day," Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said at the announcement. "Today is a victory for all our children in Lincoln Park and Old Town. For years, overcrowding has threatened Abraham Lincoln Elementary's ability to deliver the high-quality education for which you and your children depend."
Construction on the annex is expected to be completed before the start of the 2015-2016 school year, Smith told DNAinfo Chicago after the event.
The cost of the project was not announced, but Smith said Lincoln parents' "hard work helped us find the money from other existing state revenues that resulted in several schools receiving money."
The project will be paid for through state funds raised from online gambling on horse races, according to Lincoln parents who were briefed on the project.
Smith and parents in the area have argued the move to quickly alleviate overcrowding at what some call the "crown jewel of CPS" was needed to stop families from moving out of the area.
"It's a win-win," said Lincoln parent Jerry Quandt, who gathered with other supporters at the Four Farthings Tavern late Monday afternoon. "It keeps the K-8 [grades] together. We don't have to redistrict. It's fantastic."
Although there have been countless public meetings on how to solve the overcrowding problem in recent years, Lincoln parents who were at the mayor's event said it was largely attended by supporters of the plan and was "hyper-controlled."
A media announcement was only sent out an hour before the mayor's appearance.
"It was like this whole process: a secretive, carefully orchestrated press conference just to make sure there would be no protest or dissent," said Caroline Vickrey, a former vice chairwoman of the Local School Council who said she was "dumbfounded" by the surprise announcement.
It is unclear who chose the hand-picked crowd to be in attendance for the event at the school, which was out of session for Veterans Day. The president of Lincoln's LSC, Katie Fairbank, said she was not invited and did not attend.
How to solve the overcrowding at Lincoln was controversial, and some questioned whether Lincoln was getting more attention than other schools with worse problems because it was in affluent Lincoln Park. According to CPS enrollment statistics, there are 61 schools systemwide that are more overcrowded than Lincoln.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey criticized the lack of a "mechanism" that would sort which schools need expansions most and determine how to hand them out.
"We are left in a situation where someone on the South or West Side who needs a school doesn't get an answer to why a school in Lincoln Park gets a school and they don't," said Sharkey, who only learned of the plan after being told by a DNAinfo Chicago reporter Monday night.
Some Lincoln parents wanted to see the boundaries for the school changed, known as redistricting, which would have meant some future students would be sent to other nearby schools.
Others, including Smith and members of Lincoln's LSC, had been pushing for some grades at the school to be split off into a new school at the site of the former Children's Memorial Hospital.
Some community members feared that Smith was going to compromise with developer Daniel McCaffery, chairman and CEO of McCaffery Interests, to allow for higher density on the site in exchange for allowing a school to be built there.
The announcement of the annex appears to put those concerns to rest.
"I held up the Children's Memorial project until we could get a solution to this problem and until McCaffery can come back with a solution that responds to the neighbors' concerns," Smith said.
Smith said she called McCaffery with the school news and expects him to present a set of plans for what is expected to be a major development at a Nov. 21 meeting.
"I said I want you to come back with a new set of plans and bring them to the community as soon as possible," she said.
School Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz said the board looked at a "broad array of options" while addressing the overcrowding issue at Lincoln before settling on the annex.
"An annex on the current Lincoln site is the most effective and permanent way to address overcrowding for this and future generations of CPS," he said at the announcement.
Ruiz warned that if the board did not take action, in two years Lincoln would have "nearly 250 more students" than it does today.
A 2013 "Education Facilities Master Plan" report, however, predicts enrollment to be less, peaking at 841 in 2017 and leveling out at 839 from 2021-2023.
Lincoln Elementary has been leasing classroom space in a DePaul University building for the 2013-2014 school year at a cost of $200,000 to CPS, but the lease was a one-year stopgap measure.
How Lincoln handles the overcrowing for the 2014-2015 school year remains up in the air.
At a LSC meeting last week, parents and Lincoln Principal Mark Armendariz discussed options such as converting the library and lunchroom into classroom spaces if DePaul does not agree to a one-year extension.