By Susan Fong
The Chicago Public School Board of Education on Sept. 28 approved three resolutions regarding the proposed new Near South Side high school.
The first sets out an agreement that the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) would lease land to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) at 24th and State Streets in exchange for the deed to CPS property at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue. The second calls for CPS to purchase the land at 23rd and Wabash for $10,318,000. The third resolution requests the Public Building Commission of Chicago to complete formulation services consisting of planning, pre-design, and design.
State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-2nd) has blocked $50 million in State funding planned for the new school project, however. During earlier Board of Education meetings, she warned members against using the site promised for new CHA housing for a school. Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7th) supports Mah’s decision to block funding.
As does Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the 25th Ward, telling Gazette Chicago he feels that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the CPS have “missed the mark” by not considering other sites, and that the decision to put the school on CHA land “did not take into account the community’s concerns.”
Mah noted Governor JB Pritzker said the $50 million is not up for disbursement. “In fact, it’s not even in the queue because the project isn’t very far along,” she said.
Residents in the 2nd District have advocated for a new school for years to provide a bilingual educational program and other resources for the Chinese immigrant population with limited English proficiency. Mah said the entire community needs this school and pointed out the “false belief” that it would serve only the Chinese community.
Supporting a new Near South Side high school does not mean Mah and area residents support the CHA site, however. They oppose the site because new enrollment would threaten enrollment at existing neighboring schools and the land long has been promised for CHA housing. Also, some opponents believe the site does not reflect the communities involved, and that it would increase segregation in area CPS high schools.
Angela Lin of the People Matter organization noted that, “the Chinese and Black community have a deep rooted history that includes unfortunately a lot of tensions and we are trying to heal those tensions…We think that this proposal will further divide the community amongst itself.”
The proposed school site sits in the Southbridge development area, which will include housing. Southbridge’s first phase is now complete, with leasing in process.
According to Karen Vaughan, CHA deputy chief of communication and marketing, the CHA is working to close the next phase of this project now that the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded it low-income housing tax credits. Southbridge allocated 244 units out of more than 800 units to returning CHA residents and families from the CHA waiting list for public housing.
According to CHA records, only 25 families from Ickes Homes, the CHA housing formerly on the site, remain on the Right of Return list. The others have either taken a voucher, moved into another CHA development, or cannot be found.
Mah said the push for the Near South Side high school at the 24th and State site would “only benefit Mayor Lightfoot,” who is up for reelection. Lugenia Burns Hope Center’s executive director, Roderick Wilson, agrees that locating the school at that site is a Lightfoot re-election strategy. Community groups favoring CHA housing and existing high schools also have expressed dissatisfaction over site.
Wilson noted that, because the mayor appoints Board of Education members, “This board thus reflects only the mayor’s agenda—and the need for a more representative board.”
Both 11th Ward Alderwoman Nicole Lee and 3rd Ward Alderwoman Pat Dowell have expressed their full support of the new school site. Lee stated she looks forward to collaborating with Dowell, local school councils, community groups, and families in the area.
“The approved school site is the only option that can fairly and equitably serve the rich diversity of our neighborhoods, and I am supportive of plans to move forward,” Lee said.
Lightfoot appointed Alderwoman Lee to her post, and Alderwoman Dowell chairs the City Council Budget Committee. Wilson asked, “Being members of the City Council, how likely are they to speak against this decision?”
Mah said, “I blocked the $50 million State funding to pressure Mayor Lightfoot into considering other sites that would include community engagement into the decision making process. I would hope that they would be sensitive to this.”
CPS, said Mary Fergus, director of media relations, “remains committed to building a high school that will serve a diverse student population from the South Loop, Chinatown, Bridgeport, and Bronzeville communities and will continue to engage with all Chicago residents, particularly those families who live in the neighborhoods this school aims to serve.”