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Plan For $30M Annex At Prussing Elementary 'A Total Shock:' Officials

 Nearly half of all Far Northwest Side schools are overcrowded, CPS says.
Nearly half of all Far Northwest Side schools are overcrowded, CPS says.
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JEFFERSON PARK — For 10 years, students at Prussing Elementary School have attended class in six mobile classrooms that Chicago Public Schools officials promised were a temporary fix to overcrowding at the Jefferson Park school.

But the school at 4650 N. Menard Ave. soon outgrew even those classrooms, and a year ago, six more "temporary classrooms" were built at the school at a cost of $2.1 million, much to the relief of parents and school officials who had been petitioning CPS and the mayor's office to ease the space crunch.

That's why members of the Prussing Local School Council were shocked by the news that plans are in the works to build a $30 million annex at the school in an effort to permanently to address overcrowding at Prussing, where 700 students study in an 100-year-old building meant for 420 students.

Prussing Local School Council member Phil Huckelberry said the council didn't even know CPS was considering building an annex at the Jefferson Park school, as first reported by WBEZ, which published a "secret" list of CPS construction projects.

"I am in total shock," Huckelberry said. "There are definitely a whole bunch of surprised people at Prussing. No one thought we were in line for an annex, because we got the modular building last year."

Ald. John Arena, whose 45th Ward includes Prussing, said plans for an annex at Prussing were news to him, but added that overcrowding was a "persistent and critical" problem at schools throughout the Far Northwest Side.

"Mobile classrooms are not the best learning environment," Arena said. "At best they are a Band-Aid. They were never designed to be a permanent solution."

Prussing Principal George Chipain did not return a message from DNAinfo Chicago about the annex.

The Chicago Board of Education last week approved a $5.4 billion budget as well as plans to borrow $945 million to pay for mostly unspecified construction projects, including efforts to relieve overcrowding.

The property tax hike approved nearly a year ago by the City Council included $45 million set aside to relieve overcrowding in schools across the city.

CPS officials plan to release a "supplemental capital budget in the fall" that will detail how those funds will be spent, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said.

“Chicago’s students deserve to learn in school buildings that have air conditioning, are wired for technology, where the roof isn't leaking on their desks, where they don't have to put desks in the hallway because of overcrowding," Bittner said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing to receive public input before any final determinations are made."

Bittner did not respond to specific questions about the projects included on the list of projects.

Also on the list of potential projects is a $20 million annex for Ebinger Elementary School in Edison Park.

Local School Council member Amy Dolhay said she was relieved to know that plans for an annex at Ebinger were actually on a list of projects, as parents and school officials had been promised for years only to be disappointed earlier this year.

"This proves they are serious, and it makes me more hopeful," Dolhay said. An annex "can't come soon enough."

Also on the list of projects is $50 million for a new junior high school and high school in Dunning designed to relieve overcrowding at Taft High School in Norwood Park and area middle schools.

Taft will again be the most crowded high school in the city this year.

At Taft in Norwood Park, 3,212 students attended class in a building meant for 2,184 pupils during the 2015-16 school year, according to data released by Chicago Public Schools officials.

The list also includes $5.2 million for an annex at Bridge Elementary School in Dunning, the second-most crowded school in the city.

But Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) announced plans last month to build a $7 million eight-classroom modular building at Bridge to ease overcrowding.

In addition, the list includes $7 million for a kindergarten and early childhood center on the Far Northwest Side. Bittner did not respond to questions about where it would be located or what students would be eligible to attend classes there.

The list also includes $3.5 million for a new turf field at Taft High School and $1 million for a new "turf play area" at Sauganash Elementary School.

The list provides a glimpse into how the district's plans to deal with overcrowded schools. Those efforts have taken place behind closed doors and revealed only to a select few officials and Local School Council members once complete.

When school officials announced plans to build an addition to Skinner West Elementary School in the West Loop, reporters were barred from the meeting. Similarly, news of the eight new classrooms at Bridge Elementary School was announced at a meeting that members of the news media were not invited to and was not listed on the school's website.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Sunday celebrated the completion of an $18 million 15-classroom annex at Canty Elementary School in Dunning, he praised parents for demanding that school and city officials find a permanent solution to overcrowding at the school.

Emanuel said deciding which schools would be expanded was "Solomonesque," referencing the Biblical story of King Solomon, who resolved a dispute between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child by tricking the parties into revealing their true feelings by ordering the baby split in half.

Nearly half of all public elementary and high schools on the Far Northwest Side are overcrowded, according to a report released in July by CPS officials.

Arena said he has been concerned since his election to the council in 2011 that the way CPS decides which school gets expanded is based on politics, rather than the most efficient and effective way to spend the district's limited capital funds.

"We screw up over and over again in this city," Arena said.

Prussing should not be prioritized over other schools that have a greater need, Arena said.

"We need to have an honest conversation," Arena said. "We need to be humane about the way we spend, and stop playing politics with this money."

District officials expect enrollment at Far Northwest Side schools to rise moderately during the 2016-17 school year.

If accurate, the enrollment projections would mean a big change for schools from last year, when eight schools experienced significant growth in the number of students.

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