CITY HALL — Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans Tuesday to install air conditioning in all Chicago Public Schools classrooms within five years.
The overarching capital project will begin this summer and build on the 70 schools that got air conditioning last summer, 55 of which were welcoming schools after citywide school closings. According to the Mayor's Office, the new effort would address 206 schools without air conditioning.
Emanuel's office did not have an initial estimate for the total cost of the project, but it was expected to come out of CPS capital funds, not operational budgets.
"The cost is being finalized and will be available in the coming weeks," CPS spokesman Joel Hood said.
The plan nonetheless got a chilly response from the Chicago Teachers Union, even though it has been lobbying for air conditioning for years. CTU spokesman Jackson Potter derided it as "smoke and mirrors," even as he allowed that classrooms can be "sweltering" in hot weather.
"It's really educational malpractice," Potter said. "We've raised it for a long time."
Yet he pointed to the "hypocrisy" of Emanuel throwing money into the issue now, after closing schools and cutting the budgets of most remaining schools last summer.
"It's unfortunate that he's using this issue to give the appearance that he cares about such matters," Potter said. "He's been under fire for the biggest budget cuts in a generation. I think he's trying to dig himself out of a hole with school closings.
"They want to disguise the inequity of how they distribute these resources," Potter added. He pointed to the three elementary schools slated for turnaround at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting — Gresham, Dvorak and McNair — saying they had been "starved with resources for years" to bring on the current crisis.
Potter also cited the $10 million CPS is spending on new furniture with the move of its headquarters Downtown later this year. "What are the real priorities?" Potter said.
Yet, in the schools, the reception was less tormented.
"Is everybody ecstatic at the thought of air conditioning? Absolutely," said Nate Manaen, principal at the 140-year-old Ravenswood Elementary School, one of the oldest in the city. "Would I love to live in a world where everything and anything my school wanted funded would happen, at every school across the city? Of course. But that's not true across the nation right now."
According to Manaen, Ravenswood teachers have monitored temperatures of 100 degrees in the school. "At those temperatures, you're thinking of how do I cool down, not how do I tackle this writing assignment," he added. "In terms of impact, it creates a comfortable learning environment."
Manaen said that, if he could choose between, say, air conditioning and hiring more teachers, after the school suffered more than $100,000 in budget cuts last summer, he'd take it to the community and parents and the Local School Council and let them decide. Yet that, he said, is not an option, as this will come from funding for capital improvements.
Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th) echoed that at Tuesday's City Council meeting of the Education Committee, which she heads as chairman. She emphasized that the capital and operational budgets were separate and distinct.
"In one pocket, we want to make sure the classroom is safe and the environment is good for the students to learn," Thomas said. "And in the other pocket we need to make sure that students can learn and have all of the resources for the teachers and all the educational things that they need in order to teach."
Without commenting on the need for air conditioning, she said the more important problem was keeping the operational budget sound so that class sizes don't expand to 40 students. "That's the bigger issue," she added, "and that's a different pocket of money."
Air conditioning has been an issue for years, especially at older, larger CPS buildings like Lane Tech High School, where students said the dress code in warm weather "stinks" — literally and figuratively.