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Chicago aldermen give OK to $8 million in TIF funding to buy land for a Near South high school

A large building in Downtown Chicago.

Chicago’s Committee on Finance voted on Monday to approve $8 million in tax-increment-finance money to purchase two properties in a land swap to make way for a proposed Near South Side high school.

Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The cost of building a controversial new high school continues to climb – as a committee of aldermen voted to allocate $8 million in city funds Monday.

Members of the City Council’s Committee on Finance approved a proposal to dedicate tax-increment finance – or TIF – money to allow Chicago Public Schools’ purchase of a cluster of properties near 2450 S. State St. The site was previously set aside for affordable housing and will now be used to build a $150 million high school. Previous estimates listed the project’s total cost around $130 million. 

The decision is the latest in an ongoing process to build the controversial high school at a time when Chicago Public Schools is grappling with declining enrollment. The project has prompted concerns about whether  a new school is needed, with some arguing a new campus would exacerbate under-enrollment. Others have criticized the district’s community engagement efforts, and the location of the site — which has long been intended for public housing.  

During the committee hearing, Ald. Pat Dowell, who represents the area that would include the high school, said the school has been in the works since 2007. The high school is an “opportunity to create a diverse high school — a model for the city of Chicago,” she said. 

“What we have seen is a growing population, not just in the South Loop, but in Chinatown and Douglas,” Dowell said.  

Ald. David Moore was the lone vote against the proposal. He raised concerns about how a new high school might impact nearby high schools, such as Dunbar Vocational Career Academy and Phillips Academy High School, which are under-enrolled. 

“I’m very, very concerned about that,” Moore said. ”I think we have an opportunity here to elevate places like Dunbar and Phillips.”

The district unveiled the proposed high school as part of the broader capital budget last spring. Officials budgeted $70 million for the project, and noted the state would kick in $50 million for the new campus. 

The Chicago Board of Education in September narrowly approved the purchase of nearly two acres as part of a land swap agreement with the Chicago Housing Authority for the proposed site. It also approved a separate measure to spend an additional $5 million to plan the new high school. 

The board will still need to approve funding for the construction of the high school. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will also need to approve the land swap agreement.

Board members who voted no this fall said the new high school would disrupt enrollment at nearby schools and further constrain funding to operate another school.

The plan to build on the former Harold Ickes Homes angered some residents and housing advocates. The CHA promised housing for residents displaced after the public housing high-rise was torn down more than a decade ago. 

During the September board meeting, state Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago), who secured state funding for a new high school, promised to withhold state funds until she was assured the district was having authentic community engagement and considering other sites. 

Asked whether they would be getting state funding, Chuck Swirsky, senior advisor to CPS’ chief executive officer, said they would be aggressive in their efforts to secure the grants. Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez, and others have lobbied to garner Mah’s support, but Swirksy acknowledged that Mah was opposed to the proposed location.

Ald. Nicole Lee, who represents Chinatown, offered her support for the high school, saying it was an ideal location for her constituents and would bring much needed revitalization to the area. 

On Monday, Ivan Hansen, chief facilities officer at Chicago Public Schools, said the new high school would solve a “critical need to provide the growing region of the city with a viable new neighborhood option.” He said the district has had over “30 engagement sessions” and had heard from more than 750 parents, community members, and school leaders.

In trying to allay some concerns, Swirksy said, in addition to the new high school, the district pledged to make investments to Dunbar, Phillips and Thomas Kelly High School, a school on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

No additional details on what the investments might look like were provided to aldermen before the vote.

Ald. Dowell said she would not rest until she got the new school across the finish line.

“We’re gonna figure out how to make this work with or without Theresa Mah,” Dowell added.

The tax-increment finance measure will move before the full City Council on Wednesday.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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