Plan for new South Side high school narrowly passed by Chicago Board of Education, amid both opposition and praise

Despite declining student enrollment in Chicago Public Schools and lingering concerns from neighborhood groups, the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday narrowly approved a plan to purchase land and take the first steps toward building a proposed $120 million Near South Side high school.

The board voted 4-3 in support of buying property at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue for $10.3 million to exchange with the Chicago Housing Authority, which would lease to the board a 1.7-acre site at 2450 S. State St. — once the site for the former Ickes Homes public housing complex — for the high school.

The board also approved authorizing the Public Building Commission to perform project planning and design services at a cost of $5 million.

“I knew this would be a pretty hefty conversation, but we needed to have it,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, a strong supporter of the plan to build the new high school, which he said should not be delayed.

“A big part of a CEO’s job is to see the bigger picture,” Martinez said. “You always have to address the immediate needs while addressing a long-term plan.”

But board member Sendhil Revuluri, who voted against the plan, remained unconvinced, and questioned how building the new high school was part of the district’s strategic plan.

“Why now? And where is the money coming from?” Revuluri said.

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who also voted in opposition to the proposal, said the plan does not make sense in a system experiencing declining enrollment.

“I don’t think this project should jump the line,” Todd-Breland said. “We should be re-imagining our existing schools to meet the needs of our families.”

The high school would be paid for with $50 million in state funding that has been re-appropriated a few times, and $70 million previously announced for a Near West Side high school that was never built. The lease between the CHA and CPS would be for 55 years, with the option of two 20-year extensions.

The proposal was removed from the agenda of the June board meeting, where several members expressed concerns.

Chinatown leaders say the school, which would serve South Loop, Chinatown and Bridgeport students, is desperately needed in an area that has seen significant growth.

Local groups and elected officials who want to see existing schools supported instead of a new one built — or who think public or affordable housing is the proper use for the land in question — have long spoken out against the project. But the controversy didn’t stop CPS from pursuing the plans, which also has had the support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. In June she said the “folks at Chinatown have been begging for a neighborhood high school for quite some time now” and that data suggested it wouldn’t diminish enrollment at nearby existing secondary schools.

Chicago Tribune’s Alice Yin contributed.

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