New High School? Cuanto Tiempo Mas?
How much longer does Back of the Yards have to wait to give its own students a new high school?
That answer is not not clear even though school and city officials have agreed to make the community’s hope a reality.
A Long-Term Need
Father Bruce Wellems, a priest from Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary and a strong advocate in the development of the a high school for the community of Back of the Yards, said the need for schools in the neighborhood dates back to as long as 20 years ago.
“The clamor for a new high school in the area spread out through the neighborhood as young kids were studying in overcrowded high schools and many of those kids were dropping out,” said Fr. Bruce.
Currently, the Back of the Yards connects to three high schools around the area: Tilden Career Academy, Kelly High School, and Richards Career Academy. The three schools are overcrowded and two are located outside the heart of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, making it hard for students to travel across gang boundaries safely when walking to school. This increases high school student drop out rates and leaves their plans for an education unfulfilled, according to Fr. Bruce.
But plans to bring a high school in the neighborhood are already on their way.
According to city of Chicago public records, on Sept. 5, 2007, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced an ordinance into the City Council. The ordinance requested authorization for the Public Building Commission’s (PBC) to acquire properties that would become the sites for 25 new schools, including the Back of the Yards High School.
The southwest corner of 47th and Hoyne St. is the proposed site for the new Back of the Yards High School. The PBC website currently describes the implementation of a new CPS Urban Model High School (UMHS) prototypical design to serve 1,200 students. The PBC website also states the 200,000 SF steel frame and masonry construction building will have three floors and a lower level that will include music, art, and athletic functions.
12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas has also been a major player in the development of this project. He strongly affirmed that building a new high school for the Back of the Yards community was his and the city’s number one priority.
Plans Delayed, Cost Climb
When the City of Chicago approved the high school and the location two years ago, it also indicated a desire to finish construction by the year 2011. It is now 2010 and we still have an empty lot. Two major obstacles are keeping the construction from taking its course.
According to Ald. Cárdenas, finding the lot to build a new high school takes time. After the Public Building Commission found and approved the location of the land, the lot now needs to be prepared for construction by displacing existing commercial businesses and removing soil contaminants before it becomes a hazard to students and school staff in the future.
At this moment, the status of business relocation and whether or not the city will force them to move out of their current lot is uncertain.
All of this costs time and money.
Funding sources are not clear and the building cost, including the relocation of the two commercial businesses and environmental remediation of the land has escalated to around $135 million dollars, according to sources. The actual construction period for the school is very short and the cost of completing this project was originally $40 to $50 million dollars. The purchase of the land alone has escalated to around $84 million dollars. Considering the added cost of moving the businesses and cleaning the land, the final cost has escalated to approximately $135 million dollars.
Although Ald. Cardenas has a much lower figure for this, all sources stated that money would come from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Ald. Cardenas firmly stated that CPS and the city are major players in terms of funding. According to Cardenas, the Department of Community Development locates and approves the land and turns it over to the Public Building Commission. These last two departments do not provide funding, only services. Thus, it is up to CPS and the city as a whole to come up with the money.
Approximately $33 million dollars will come from TIF money, according to Cardenas’ calculations. But it is still unclear whether the rest would have to come from the city, CPS, both, other city departments,or even grants.
What is clear is that without the money, the Back of the Yards will have to wait much longer for a new high school.
Ald. Cardenas stated that at a recent meeting with Mayor Daley, the mayor clearly stated his commitment to finding the financial resources to develop this project. Cardenas feels confident Back of the Yards will have a high school by the year 2012 or 2013; however, the Board of Education’s commitment to finishing and funding this project is questionable.
When asked about the Board of Education’s involvement in the funding of the new high school, Ald. Cardenas spoke with disappointment.
“We need a high school now,” said Cardenas. “We need to put pressure on CPS and particularly on the Board. I want to take a group of students and a group of parents to the board meetings.”
According to Cardenas, the construction of a new high school for the Back of the Yards is not a priority for the Board of Education.
Calls to Monique Bond, CPS Communications Officer, were unanswered.