Records Raise Questions on CPS Transparency Over Near South Side High School Plan (2023)

Records Raise Questions on CPS Transparency Over Near South Side High School Plan (1)

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When Chicago Public Schools first announced a plan in June of last year to build a new $120 million high school on the Near South Side, officials assured residents they would play a key role in the project over the coming months.

But for nearly a year, CPS worked behind closed doors with the Chicago Housing Authority and city departments to negotiate a land-swap deal that would allow the district to build the school –later projected to cost $150 million —on a portion of public housing land, the former Harold Ickes Homes, according to public records obtained by the Illinois Answers Project.

In return for a long-term lease on the public housing land, CPS agreed to buy nearby land for the CHA. CPS bought the land for $10.3 million, even though one appraiser on the deal estimated the land value at just $7.7 million, records show.

These records, which include more than 1,500 pages of land appraisals, real estate agreements and internal emails between officials, offer a closer look at the school’s development process — which some critics say has not been transparent or involved the community in a meaningful way.

An Illinois Answers review of the documents found that:

  • CPS, the CHA and the city began meeting in the fall of 2020 to consider potential locations for the new Near South Side High School.
  • By July 2021, the three entities were intent on pursuing the land-swap plan — CPS would lease the former Ickes public housing land at 24th and State to build the school and buy replacement land at 23rd and Wabash for the CHA — despite anticipating community opposition.
  • When CPS received an appraisal report that valued the Wabash land at $7.7 million, district counsel reached out to a second firm to research the first report and provide a new valuation. The second firm valued the land at $10.275 million, then raised the value to $10.32 million.
  • If the land-swap deal did not get necessary approvals, CPS planned to use the Wabash land as a back-up site for the school. But in community meetings CPS maintained that there were no other viable locations for the school, even as community members and elected officials asked the district to rethink its plan to use public housing land. Local activists have argued that the city should complete the construction of promised affordable housing on the Ickes land before building a school.

The proposal for a new school comes after years of requests for a new open enrollment high school for families in Chinatown and the South Loop.

The majority of high schoolers in Chinatown currently commute several miles southwest to Kelly High School in Brighton Park, or to selective enrollment schools on the North Side with bilingual programs. And while student enrollment has shrunk district-wide over the last two decades, the South Loop is one of the few neighborhoods in the city where the student population has increased.

The 1,200-student school would serve students in Chinatown, South Loop, Bronzeville and Bridgeport, CPS has said.

A previous plan to open a high school in an existing South Loop elementary school ended after families filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2018 — the judge ruled that the plan would violate state laws.

Discussion of the school arose again in 2020, after State Rep. Theresa Mah (D-24) announced she had helped secure $50 million in state money for the new school.

But since news broke about the land-swap plan, community groups and elected officials — including Mah — have spoken out against the district’s use of public housing land and asked the district to consider other sites. Last fall, Mah said she would block the funds until the district had shown a “good faith” effort to find a new site.

In March, CPS bought the Wabash land for $10.3 million several days after receiving final approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Since closing on the purchase, CPS has not discussed the status of the school, with its future unclear.

“CPS remains fully committed to meaningfully engaging with the community to ensure that a future high school on the Near South Side serves the needs of the growing community,” CPS spokesperson Samantha Hart said in a statement.

Others remain skeptical of the district’s engagement.

“Their plan was to move forward with a backroom deal, so of course, they were not going to have a legitimate community engagement process,” said Mah (D-24) after learning of the records obtained by the Illinois Answers Project. The findings "reinforce my belief that there was never any intention or interest about getting meaningful community input on the site selection.”

Mah added that she has not reallocated the $50 million for the school.

Hart emphasized that the district conducted “significant research into potential sites” and extensive community meetings and did not finalize any decision regarding the school until its September 28 board meeting last year.

“Contract negotiations were done in tandem with community engagement sessions to ensure that once input had been finalized and a decision was made, the Board would be able to secure an acceptable site,” Hart wrote.

Focused early on one site

CPS said it considered 16 sites for the new Near South Side high school.

A PDF obtained from the district shows it charted the basic size, ownership and zoning information for 16 sites between 15th and 30th streets.

Public records, though, show that CPS, the CHA and the city’s Department of Planning and Development were focused on the Ickes site by July 2021.

At a July 2021 City Hall meeting, CPS showcased the Ickes land and three other nearby properties: a 2 acre parcel owned by Commonwealth Edison at 23rd and Federal, a 6.8 acre parcel at 17th and Canal and a northern portion of The 78 megadevelopment. The Ickes site was “preferred,” according to a slideshow prepared for that meeting. The viability of other sites was not addressed.

With the National Teachers Academy building just a block to the north, building a high school on the Ickes land would create a larger K-to-12 campus with shared athletic fields and facilities, the slideshow noted. But the slideshow also noted serious challenges, like anticipated community opposition to the use of public housing land and the possibility of encountering roadblocks while seeking approval for the land-swap from theCHA and HUD.

The last challenge that CPS noted was the cost of buying land on the Near South Side to exchange with the CHA.

Despite anticipated challenges, then-mayor Lori Lightfoot and CHA CEO Tracey Scott, gave the land-swap their approval later that month, email records show.

“We are moving toward a ground lease AND purchasing the two parcels to the east,” a project manager from the mayor’s office wrote to CPS and CHA officials, on July 22.

In the following weeks contract invoices and email records show, the three governmental bodies started moving forward on the project.

Two appraisals, millions of dollars apart

The replacement land, two parcels on Wabash and 23rd, had been on the market since January 2020 for an undisclosed listing price. Previously owned by a transportation company, the land had been used in recent years as parking lots for truck containers.

CPS bought the land earlier this year for $10,318,800 or around $120 per square foot.

One broker, who declined to be named for professional reasons, said that the final purchase price was high but did not seem excessive in the context of recent nearby land sales. Similar land parcels have sold for anywhere between $51.29 to $408.98 per square foot in the last five years, but the broker said he thought the best recent comparable sales were two properties that sold for around $90 and $50 per square foot, respectively.

The first appraisal the city's Department of Planning and Development received, in November 2021, put the value of the Wabash land at $6.4 million, or about $75 per square foot. CPS has said it was unaware of this first appraisal.

DPD officials asked the appraiser, Polach Appraisal Group, to revise the report, factoring in other sales from the seller’s broker to get to a “reasonable fair market value,” one email reads.

In a later email, a DPD official said the appraiser declined to incorporate the broker’s comparable sales because they were not recent enough or useable for other reasons but bumped the land’s valuation up to $7.7 million in a later revision, which DPD shared with CHA and CPS officials in January 2022.

The next month, an attorney working for CPS called an appraiser from another firm to discuss the first appraisal, legal invoices show. CPS would later hire that firm, Zimmerman Real Estate, to appraise the Wabash and the Ickes parcels.

In an initial report sent July 1, 2022, Zimmerman’s appraiser said the land was worth $10.275 million. A revised report on Sept. 29, 2022, raised the property’s value to $10.32 million.

Records Raise Questions on CPS Transparency Over Near South Side High School Plan (2)

On June 22, 2022, CPS abruptly pulled the school proposal from the budget, throwing the school’s future into question. CPS CEO Pedro Martinez told the Sun-Times that the district wanted to pause planning to “answer questions that exist in the community about this proposal and our partnership with CHA.”

Despite CPS pulling the school proposal from its agenda, the CHA board unanimously approved the land swap deal the following month.

Two months later, CPS reintroduced the school proposal for a vote by the Board of Education, and board members voted 4-3 to approve the land-swap deal.

The $10.32 million appraisal was submitted the following day. That increase was based on updated land surveys that added several hundred square feet to the two parcels’ square footage, and a more recent, higher-cost land sale from April 2022, a review of the appraisals shows.

“The [final] Zimmerman appraisal included more recent, comparable sales data which showed a land value of $200 per square foot,” Hart wrote. “This sale, including the sales in both appraisal reports, support a value of $120 per square foot.”

But an explanation for the difference between the $7.7 million appraisal and the Zimmerman's initial appraisal of $10.275 million — an increase of 33% or about $2.5 million — remains unclear. The $10.275 million appraisal submitted in July did not include the more recent comparable sale.

The two firms used the same appraisal approach and drew from similar comparable land sales.

Vacant commercial land can be especially difficult to appraise in city centers, experts said. Appraisers must examine recent property sales of similar land and make adjustments to the sale prices of those similar parcels based on location, zoning, size and other factors.

In an interview, a DPD spokesperson said that it is common for an appraisal to be revised, and for multiple appraisals to be conducted on one parcel of land. Other appraisal experts also said neither practice was uncommon nor raised ethical concerns.

When asked about the conflicting appraisals, Hart, the CPS spokesperson, said that the district was previously unaware of the first, $6.4 million appraisal. But CPS was aware of the $7.7 million appraisal and did not directly address questions regarding why it did not rely on it instead of the much higher appraisal.

CPS said in a statement: "This ($10.3 million) was the appraisal the Board and its representatives used to develop a competitive offer for land situated within blocks of McCormick Place and Wintrust Arena that also had access to existing CPS resources, including a soccer field, track and baseball field, and access to public transit for the growing student population."

“Throughout this process, CPS prioritized the best possible deal for Chicago taxpayers,” Hart said.

The two appraisers did not respond to requests for comment.

CPS proceeds with land-swap deal, despite community concerns

At an initial community engagement meeting between CHA resident leaders and CHA and CPS officials on May 26, 2022, some residents asked why the school couldn’t be located on the Wabash land instead of the Ickes site.

Records show that CPS had considered building the school on the land in July 2021 and found no immediate problems.

CPS confirmed to Illinois Answers that the district planned to use the land as a back-up school location if HUD denied the land-swap plan.

The Wabash land is just under 2 acres. The Ickes parcel set aside to lease to CPS is 1.7 acres.

Choosing another site would have addressed one of the main demands of community leaders, who asked that public housing land not be sold or leased until the CHA has completed the promised replacement units.

These leaders zeroed in on two sites — 17th and Canal and the north side of The 78 megadevelopment — that had made it to CPS’s final list by July 2021 as alternative locations.

At several meetings and town halls, though, CPS officials explained the challenges those two sites presented but did not indicate that the district would be reassessing its selection of the Ickes land.

Hart said that issues have also been identified at the Wabash land. Building a school on the Wabash land, which is divided by a roadway, would “require the construction of a bridge,” Hart said.

As families have demanded more participatory decision-making from local governments in recent years, school districts — CPS and others — have struggled to adapt, said Rachel Weber, professor of urban planning and policy at University of Illinois at Chicago.

“These are really impactful decisions about where schools are located,” Weber said. “I think the trauma of the school closures really brought home to people how little control they had over these kinds of decisions that had huge effects on their lives.”

The future of the school remains uncertain, to the frustration of some parents.

Focus groups with local school councils and community groups have been on pause for several months, according to Kevin Robinson, a CPS parent and LSC chair at Holden Elementary in Bridgeport.

Robinson said that the planning process has felt alienating for himself and other parents who want to see the school built, but not on public housing land.

“What do the parents want to do? That’s the question that’s never been asked on any of this,” said Robinson. “It’s always, ‘What does the governor and the General Assembly and the state reps want, what does the mayor’s office want, what does CHA want?’”

Robinson also said that the district should increase the school’s capacity from 1,200 to 2,400 or higher to account for nearby developments like The 78, which could add as many as 10,000 residential units within the school’s boundaries. He and other parents felt strongly that CPS should also commit to investing equal amounts in nearby neighborhood high schools.

“Putting it together and making it happen will absolutely energize and engage the community. But the other side of it is that you have to let the community get involved and take some ownership over that.”

In his mayoral campaign, Brandon Johnson promised to enforce a moratorium on the lease and sale of public housing land, a pledge that was reiterated in his transition team report.

Records Raise Questions on CPS Transparency Over Near South Side High School Plan (3)

When asked about the status of the school, CPS spokesperson Hart said that the district is “continuing to work with members of the community and the city to ensure that any future school on the Near South Side meets the needs of this growing and diverse community.”

For Roderick Wilson, a longtime organizer around low-income and public housing and executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, the frustration around the nature of previous public engagement remains.

“This is never about what we want, it's about whoever it is running the city, what they want, and how do we either find people or persuade people to agree with us,” Wilson said. “We expect this out of our government, and it shouldn't be that way. Government’s supposed to be there for us.”

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