While Austin community leaders have pushed for years for a new neighborhood high school, Chicago Public Schools Chief Jean-Claude Brizard contends the need may not be there.
By population, Austin is the biggest neighborhood in the city and has not had a public high school since Austin High School closed in 2003. The facility, located at 231 N. Pine, now houses three charter schools, Austin Polytechnical Academy, Austin Business Academy and VOICE High School. Community groups have proposed using the shuttered Brach’s Candy site as a location for a new school to no avail.
But in a recent editorial board meeting with the Austin Weekly Newspaper and the Chicago Journal, Brizard said there are several variables the district uses to determine if a community gets a new school. One, he said is population trends and the other is school choice. If population trends support a new school “then we ought to create that,” he said. School choice looks at where parents are sending their children.
But Brizard noted that CPS faces challenges in planning new schools since the push for a new school seemingly is political and not always strategic.
“For example, we’ve built new buildings in parts of the city with declining enrollment,” Brizard said. “Right now there is a great need to balance the portfolio and to put a good high school where there isn’t one, and if there is no good high schools in that neighborhood, how do you create one.”
Chicago Public Schools is fleshing out a more comprehensive plan for school facilities. Illinois state law mandated that the district draft a ten-year facilities plan and a five-year capital plan to help improve school facilities. The mandate was part of an education reform bill passed this spring. Attempts to draft a facilities plan has languished under several school administrations over the years.
Brizard said he wants to strike a balance with ensuring students get a quality education while providing them with state-of-the art facilities. Some school capital improvements could be as simple as replacing a roof or repairing a boiler to more drastic measures like tearing down a school and erecting a new one to address overcrowding.
The facilities plan “may not identify all the resources across the city, but it will give you a map of what is needed,” he said, adding that once the facilities plan is finalized it will be released to the public.
The other issue is equity when it comes to capital improvement. Brizard contends a misconception exist that more affluent North Side schools get more school improvement dollars than schools in poverty stricken areas on the south and west sides. Brizard says that is not the case. However, he could not list where capital improvement dollars have been spent within the system.
“In fact if you take a look at district funding, a lot of poor schools get more money than affluent schools,” he said.
That is because poor schools get federal resources from Title I and other federal programs that target low-income communities, he explained. More affluent neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park, can afford to provide students Macbooks because “parents raise the money to buy it for them,” he added.
He noted communities in the city’s North West Side “are getting squeezed the most” because “they are middle class and don’t get Title I.”
Still, parents believe inequity exists, especially when CPS pours millions of dollars to rehab shuttered buildings handed over to charter schools while neighborhood schools go without.
Brizard said residents should look to their aldermen for answers. Tax increment financing (TIF) dollars, a special financing method used to subsidize community and economic development, are often used to develop school rehab projects. He said aldermen have a say as over how TIF money is spent.
“If you have an alderman that is pretty powerful and can get things done [schools can get rehabbed.] And in some cases, if you don’t have a powerful alderman you are not going to get it,” he said.
He contends the debate over equity in school improvement dollars is also politically driven.
“I think once the numbers come out it should provide pretty good fodder for great conversation around equity and around who has leverage and who doesn’t have leverage,” Brizard said.