Chicago Admits $122 Million Error on School Closure Savings

Ian Becker

Chicago Public Schools has revised down its expected savings from school closings by over one hundred million dollars. In March, when CPS announced the plan to close 54 elementary and high schools, the district estimated it would save $560 million in repairs and maintenance work. Last week, however, CPS reduced the figure to $437.8 million—a difference of $122 million. According to WBEZ, CPS attributed the discrepancy to outdated assessments, but critics say the initial estimates included unnecessary upgrades:  Chicago Public Schools says it made an “honest mistake” when adding numbers, and had plugged in some schools that didn’t belong there. But the overall cost savings is also being revised downward because schools that had not been assessed for years are getting thorough capital-needs reviews. CPS had made estimates of how much it would take to repair and upgrade individual school buildings—and thus, how much it could save by closing those buildings. A CPS official said originally the district budgeted in central air conditioning to cost estimates. That's been switched to window units. Parents, activists, and even aldermen have complained that the district’s estimated cost for fixing their schools is inflated. Parents at Trumbull Elementary in Edgewater, for instance, got notes home in March saying it would cost $16.3 million to repair and upgrade their school. It was one of the reasons listed for closing the school. CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley defended the city's hurried decision-making to the Chicago Sun-Times, saying that "the sooner you act, the more you end up avoiding throwing good money after bad." Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, however, said that such mistakes are characteristic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's well-known impatience. Lewis said that she was not surprised that the estimates were overblown, according to the Sun Times: Lewis noted that CPS is borrowing $300 million to bankroll the closings, “co-locations” of two schools in one building, the expansion of full-day kindergarten and other improvements.   “I’m not seeing how the savings kicks in and, when it does, we’re only looking at maybe $30 million a year, maybe. And that’s not going to happen within the next five years—and maybe longer,” Lewis said while taping, “Connected to Chicago,” to be broadcast at 6 a.m. Sunday on WLS-AM and FM Radio.   “I’m glad that they finally admitted it. But, they’re going to do it anyway. I mean — that’s something that is so shameful to me. You see that something is wrong. You see it’s not going to accomplish what you want to accomplish. But, you’re going to do it anyway,” Lewis said on the radio program. The scheduled closings are slated to be the largest mass closure of schools in U.S. history. CPS claims that they are facing a $1 billion dollar deficit in their budget for the 2013-2014 school year, and that the closings will save between $500,000 and $800,000 for each school closed. Education advocates such as Diane Ravitch have noted CPS' history of miscalculating and overstating their budget troubles. In the 2010-2011 school year, for instance, the Chicago Board of Education approved a budget with a $245 million deficit, but ended up finishing the year with $328 million surplus. The next year, the BOE approved a budget with a deficit of $214 million, but again finished with a surplus of $328 million.    In both cases, the budget estimates were off by more than $500 million dollars.

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