CHICAGO – Chicago would need $14.4 billion to address emergency building repairs and fully renovate all 522 of its public school buildings, officials estimated in a new report that also predicts the school system’s falling enrollment won’t turn around for at least the next three years.
The long-awaited analysis by Chicago Public Schools leaders examined facilities needs citywide, where school buildings are on average 83 years old with some in serious disrepair.
It has long been apparent that many of the city’s school facilities need serious upgrades for healthy and safe learning, with kids often learning among hazards such as lead paint, leaky ceilings, broken floor tiles and deteriorating walls.
The 192-page report released Wednesday provided the broadest picture in years of the status of those facilities. Officials found schools have more than $3 billion worth of immediate critical needs that are unaddressed. And to go a step further and modernize all buildings, it would take serious additional funding to avoid burdensome long-term debt.
CPS is already facing a projected $628 million structural operating deficit in 2025 that Board of Education members have been warning about for over a year. Officials have cited unequal funding processes for CPS compared to other districts in Illinois that make it more difficult for Chicago to pay for school operations as well as upgrades.
In particular, Chicago can’t put referendums on the ballot to ask for temporary tax increases to pay for a school renovation like other cities and towns can. That leaves the district taking on debt to fix its buildings or taking money out of the operating budget, which pays for programs at schools.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez argued in the report that a long-term solution is the right way to go because “it would also save our city money in the long run by eliminating the extra costs of rushing from emergency repair to emergency repair.”
“It would also allow us to have greener, more sustainable schools that would reduce our carbon footprint and utility costs for decades to come,” he said. “Above all, it would communicate to our students that they are valued, that their education is valued, and that their future is valued.”
The average CPS campus was built in 1940, and the oldest in 1874. More than a third of schools were built before 1940, while only 10% have been constructed since 2000. The greatest need is on the West Side.
CPS estimates it’ll take $598 million to make all schools fully wheelchair accessible. Long-term needs include new windows, roofs, heating and cooling systems and other upgrades like modern science labs.
All these renovations are needed as fewer students attend CPS schools.
The district’s enrollment fell for 11 consecutive years until stabilizing this fall, in part due to thousands of newly arrived immigrants from Central and South America, and Russian and Ukrainian refugees.
The CPS report projects no enrollment growth in 2024-25, 2025-26 or 2026-27. By 2026, enrollment could be down to 299,000, the district estimated. At best, it would remain around 323,000, close to today’s figure.
A majority of buildings, 293, are underutilized, the report said. About 180 have the right number of kids, while 25 are overcrowded.