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Chicago school board set to vote again on new high school for South Loop, Chinatown

The facade of Chicago Public Schools headquarters, with the district’s sign hanging on the wall behind windows with green silhouettes of students.

After pausing in June, CPS will lay the groundwork during Wednesday’s board meeting for a controversial $120 million high school with critical votes to buy a $10 million property and spend another $5 million to plan the project.

Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat

Chicago Public Schools is set to purchase property on the Near South Side for $10.3 million, laying the groundwork to build a controversial new high school.

The decision to move ahead with the proposed $120 million high school, which would serve the South Loop and Chinatown, comes as the city grapples with another year of declining enrollment. Dozens of high schools have so few students that it is difficult to provide extracurriculars.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education members will vote on whether to purchase nearly two acres at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue, as part of a land swap with the Chicago Housing Authority for the proposed site of the school at 2450 S. State Street, according to the board agenda.  The CHA board already approved a plan to lease the State Street property to the district in exchange for the deed for the 23rd and Wabash parcels.

The board will also vote on whether to spend another $5 million in capital funds on planning, pre-design, and design services for the proposed high school. 

The project has been in the works for a while – but community residents and some board members have said the district was shoehorning the proposed high school while leaving neighbors out of the process.

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

The proposed plan was set for a vote in June but was pulled off the agenda at the last minute. 

“I want to take a little bit more time to answer questions that exist in the community about this proposal and our partnership with the CHA,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said at the time.

Dwayne Truss, one of the board members who was critical of the plan and likely would have voted against it, has since been replaced with mayoral ally and former Ald. Michael Scott Jr. Truss’s term on the board expired but he was set to serve another term. 

Ahead of the July meeting, the mayor also appointed two new members – Sulema Medrano Novak, a trial lawyer, and Paige Ponder, a former CPS employee – as replacements for other outgoing board members.

Following his ouster, Truss said the opposition to the high school and the mayor’s decision not to reappoint him to the board seemed connected.

The idea of a high school for the Near South Side has been floated for years. A previous plan would have converted National Teachers Academy – which is a block away from the proposed site – from an elementary school to a high school. But in 2018, a judge stopped the school district from moving ahead with the plan after NTA parents filed a lawsuit.   

During the June board meeting, board president Miguel del Valle acknowledged the concerns of other members, including issues around engagement, but said the district “can’t walk away” from $50 million from the state. 

The price tag is still a concern for some board members. The last time the district built a new high school, it cost $85 million. That project – Englewood STEM High School – was initially expected to cost $75 million. It also led to the closure of four under-enrolled neighborhood high schools nearby.  

Board vice president Sendhil Revuluri in June said he wasn’t sure why a new school was on the table, especially in the face of persistent enrollment declines. In the last decade, the city’s public schools have lost more than 75,000 students and updated enrollment numbers showing another year of declines are expected to be released on Wednesday. 

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

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