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Elite high school once known as ‘Obama Prep’ put off by CPS deal

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s much-ballyhooed plan to build a $60 million selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side that was to be named after President Barack Obama is one of the casualties of the 11th-hour deal that staved off a teachers strike.

Emanuel sealed the deal with the Chicago Teachers Union, in part by declaring a $175 million surplus from tax-increment-financing funds, with roughly $88 million of it going to the Chicago Public Schools.

That required a handful of aldermen to sacrifice big-ticket projects that would have been bankrolled by TIF funding.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) was one of them. The project he agreed to sacrifice — indefinitely — is the selective-enrollment high school on the Near North Side that Emanuel announced with great fanfare in the run-up to his 2015 re-election campaign.

“Pawar gave up a lot. Brendan Reilly gave up a lot. Several aldermen are giving up a lot of things to help with this situation because folks want the children and the parents to be whole so they don’t have to lose their jobs, take off work — all of those things. It was about the kids,” Burnett said after emerging from a closed-door briefing on the mayor’s 2017 budget.

Under repeated questioning, Burnett acknowledged that the $60 million selective enrollment high school would be postponed indefinitely.

Pressed on why he was willing to sacrifice the showcase project, the alderman noted that the project has been in limbo with the Public Building Commission for months.

“We didn’t have a permanent spot for it. … It would have been nice to have it yesterday for the amenities of the community,” but it wasn’t happening, the alderman said.

“My main focus for the Obama high school is to help me to sell the other property and the mixed-income housing over at Cabrini Green. That’s my whole concern about that school. Helping me to make those mixed income developments more marketable so we could use subsidies from market rate people to build housing for the poor people. … Seeing that the time line for those things to happen, it still can be beneficial. It still can work out as far as the school eventually being built. Eventually, it will be built. There’s a timeline, but it’s postponed right now.”

Apparently referring to the now-averted teachers strike, Burnett said, “To help with this situation and I get what I want, I think it’s a good deal.”

On April 24, 2014, Emanuel unveiled plans to use $60 million generated by the Near North TIF to build Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school and name it after Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief-of-staff sealed the deal with black voters.

Emanuel subsequently dropped the Obama name saying he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss. Black elected officials had taken offense, citing the President’s roots on the South Side.

The controversy didn’t die with the name change. That’s because area residents were not consulted and because it so closely followed Emanuel’s decision to close 50 public schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Adding salt to the wound was Emanuel’s earlier decision to spend $17 million in TIF money to expand Payton in the shadows of Stanton Park.

A few weeks later, Burnett disclosed that the site for the new school — in the middle of Stanton Park, 618 W. Scott — would be changed under pressure from Near North Side residents concerned about a shortage of parking and the loss of precious parkland.

The showcase school – with space for 1,200 high-achieving students, 30 percent of them from the surrounding community — was central to Emanuel’s plan to give parents more high-quality options to prevent families from fleeing to the suburbs when their children approach high school age.

That same year, applications for coveted spots in Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment high schools rose by 8 percent. That left 16,440 students vying for 3,200 seats.

Last year, Burnett went public with his fears that the school would ever be built. He cited the $9.5 billion pension crisis and $1.1 billion budget shortfall that threatens the on-time opening of Chicago Public Schools this fall.

Although there was $60 million in TIF money to build the school, Burnett wondered aloud whether CPS has the money it needs to staff, equip and run the new school.

In December 2014, a vacant riverfront parcel at Division and Halsted emerged as the favored site for construction of the elite high school.

At the time, Burnett said two other sites also in his ward were still in the running: the shuttered Near North High School on Larrabee near Clybourn, which is now controlled by the Chicago Housing Authority, and Chicago Park District land at Hudson and Locust, near the Jesse White Center.

But Burnett said he favored the privately owned riverfront parcel, near Goose Island, because it has everything the mayor’s original plan for Stanton Park lacked.

Plenty of room for parking. No conflict with nearby schools or parks. And it wouldn’t take away land the CHA needs to build replacement housing.

Top mayoral aides had spent months vetting alternative sites and getting reaction to those sites at community meetings — the kind of advance work that was sorely lacking the first time around.

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