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The ongoing fight to bring a new high school to Austin has acquired fresh relevance with the release of a report criticizing the Chicago Public Schools' reform efforts, and state legislation filed last month calling for the construction of the new facility.
The Chicago Education Facilities Task Force's report, which was released June 24, is deeply critical of CPS's 10-Year Educational Facilities Master Plan (EFMP). Issued last year, EFMP prioritizes funding for new charter, vocational and magnet high schools. The plan was implemented to replace the city's traditional public schools, which CPS has been closing in the last decade.
The task force's report echoes some of the criticisms leveled at CPS by education activists. It also underscores concerns outlined in a bill introduced last month by state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th) calling for a new high school to be built in Austin. Ford is also requesting a $60 million appropriation for construction. Filed on May 21, the bill has been referred to the House Rules Committee where it remains currently.
Ford could not be reached for comment regarding the likelihood of his bill making it out of committee and getting passed by both the House and Senate. His resolution calls for the building of "West Side Unity High School" on the roughly 130,000 square-foot site of the closed Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison.
The site has several advantages, Ford says.
Since it's already owned by CPS, there would be no need to find and acquire a new site, according to Ford. It's location within a tax increment financing district also makes it eligible for up to $20 million in capital funds, Ford says. The new school, he adds, could trigger increased property values and community safety in the surrounding neighborhood; and the Madison Street location is also ideal given its public transportation access.
Ford's $60 million request comes at a time when the state has announced that it is all but broke.
In releasing his proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, Gov. Pat Quinn outlined the state's financial woes. If Illinois's finances aren't stabilized, the governor said, the state might need to make "radical cuts to education funding by a billion dollars."
That, the governor said, would force school districts to lay off teachers, grow class sizes and cut music, art and sports programs — Illinois property owners would also see higher taxes as a result.
On June 26, CPS announced that it was laying-off more than 1,000 staff. Last year, the Chicago Board of Education approved CPS's recommendation to close 50 schools throughout the city, including in Austin.
Of the $875 million cuts outlined in Quinn's budget, more than $224 million would come from CPS alone, according to figures prepared by the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
Rather than building new schools, CPS has allocated money toward fixing up existing ones. The Austin High School Campus, 231 N. Pine, has received more than $20 million for maintenance costs and modernization enhancements. The campus currently houses Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, Austin Polytechnical Academy and VOISE Academy.
Ford's resolution criticizes the campus' current arrangement. The former Austin High School closed in 2007 due to "poor academic performance" and was replaced by three smaller schools. Total enrollment now is just over 1,000 students, far fewer than the 6,000 students the campus held at its peak.
"It is widely felt that these three schools do not adequately serve the entire student population of the Austin community," Ford's resolution reads.
Key findings by the task force, which was commissioned by state Rep. Cynthia Soto (4th), seem to support some of Ford's arguments.
According to the report, CPS does not currently have any board policies in place to "systematically evaluate how public school closures, such as the closing of Austin Community Academy in 2007, and the 49 others last year, directly affect the students who attend them."
The task force also found that CPS' strategy of closing and restructuring schools "may be contributing to an overall decline in CPS' student enrollment…students uprooted from their neighborhood public schools by CPS' School Actions and Closings are not 'choosing' charters."
The task force notes that CPS may have already spent more than $400 million on last year's school closings and restructuring. Ford's resolution also references the newly-approved Barack Obama College Prep High School slated for Lincoln Park — at a cost of $60 million— and the $700,000 worth of capital improvements for Rockne Stadium at Central and Roosevelt.
Both proposals, which were OK'd by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are examples of projects that CPS decided to fund despite its purported financial problems, Ford says.
Michael Romain is founder and editor of TheVillageFreePress.org