The Mystery of the Construction Obstructionist 

Why is Alderman Ray Suarez blocking a new school that could ease overcrowding in his ward?

Most aldermen are eager to build new schools in their communities, if only to show their constituents that they have some clout at City Hall. But on the northwest side it's just the opposite: 31st Ward alderman Ray Suarez is exercising his clout to keep a school out of the area.

The school would be built in Belmont-Cragin, which has undergone a population boom in recent years as white retirees have moved out and sold their homes to young families, most of them Hispanic. As a result at least three local grammar schools—Schubert, Reinberg, and Mary Lyon—are over capacity, according to the Board of Education. Officials have brought in mobile units and converted art and music rooms into regular classrooms, but advocates say it's not enough. "We need more than one new school," says Ariel Reboyras, alderman of the 30th Ward. "I think as soon as we build one it will be overcrowded."

Last year the school board and Mayor Daley agreed to build a new grammar school at 5200 W. Belmont, currently the site of a boarded-up Jewel. It happens to be in Reboyras's ward, but as he continually points out, a new school there would also alleviate overcrowding in Suarez's ward and alderman Tom Allen's neighboring 38th Ward.

Traditionally the school board has covered acquisition, demolition, and construction costs for new schools by borrowing money—or issuing bonds—that it repaid over time with revenue from property taxes. But now the school system can barely find enough money to pay its teachers, let alone build new facilities. Instead it's relying on Mayor Daley's controversial tax increment financing program for construction costs.

Two years ago, as Daley was gearing up for reelection, schools CEO Arne Duncan and other board of ed officials praised him for pledging to spend up to $800 million in TIF funds on new schools. When they financed construction themselves, school officials didn't need outside approval to build schools. But now, because they're being built with TIF money, these projects are overseen by the Public Building Commission, whose ten members are appointed by the mayor. And each one needs the OK of the City Council, starting with its Committee on Housing and Real Estate, which Suarez chairs.

The Belmont-Cragin project came before the committee on September 20, 2007, and with the usual unanimous vote from aldermen the PBC was authorized to start negotiating to buy the property. The matter then should have gone to the full council.

But it didn't. As is his prerogative as chairman, Suarez kept it in committee, and so far no one—not Reboyras, not school officials—can persuade him to let it out. "He's the man," says Reboyras. "He's in charge."

In part to pressure Suarez, the school board held a public meeting in April at Foreman High, across the street from the site, to promote the new school. Of the 50 or so people who showed up, about half a dozen came to protest the proposed site; most were concerned it could cause traffic congestion, and some worried that its proximity to Foreman could make grammar school kids vulnerable to bullying.

But most of the people favored the location, if only because it was readily available. "There's never going to be a perfect location in the city—there's just not a lot of space to build around here," says Reboyras. "We need a new school; the Jewel wants to sell. Our schools are overcrowded—let's get it done.

"I don't want to say anything bad about Alderman Suarez," he adds. "I love him like a brother. But we got to do the right things for the kids."

Suarez hasn't publicly explained his reluctance to let the bill out of committee, and he didn't return my calls. His actions have left almost everyone involved wondering what he's up to, including his pal Reboyras.

It could be that he's responding to complaints from residents about the location—about 30 folks showed up to protest the site at a more recent community meeting held by the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, a local organization. But the most vehement opponents live near the site, which is in Reboyras's ward. And anyway the opposition didn't really emerge until last month, which doesn't explain why Suarez has been sitting on the project since last fall.

School board officials speculate his resistance might have to do with the politics of TIFs. The money for the school would come from three TIFs: Belmont-Cicero, Belmont-Central, and West Irving. When they were created in 2000, these TIFs were not intended for new schools—they were earmarked for unspecified development that would increase the tax base, which schools do not do.

In the last two years, however, Mayor Daley has made it clear that he intends to use unallocated TIF money to build new schools whether the local aldermen like it or not. And many do not. It's not that they don't want new schools; it's just that they've come to think of the TIFs as their own little slush funds, which they—pending the mayor's approval—get to spend on what they like. Some aldermen have publicly opposed using what they call their TIF money to build schools outside their wards.

Actually aldermen have allowed Mayor Daley to mislead them on TIFs: No one TIF really belongs to any one aldermen or community. When the City Council creates a TIF, the amount of money the schools, parks, county, and other taxing bodies get from property taxes in that district remains frozen for 23 years. If the schools and parks get $100 from taxpayers in the TIF district when it's created, that's about all the schools and parks will get for the next 23 years. As folks in the district pay more in property taxes, the extra money flows into the TIF funds. That's why aldermen tend to think of the TIF money as belonging to them and their community.

But it's not that simple. To compensate for the extra dollars they're not able to collect in the TIF districts, the schools, parks, and other taxing bodies have to raise their tax rates. In reality TIFs are citywide property tax hikes, which everyone pays (including renters, as tax hikes get passed on in the form of higher rents). Just in 2006, the most recent year for which there are official numbers, TIFs in Chicago made $500 million unavailable for citywide services.

But some schools officials are starting to suspect that Suarez is trying to force the school board to keep its hands out of his TIF pot. The new school, with an estimated $36 million price tag, would essentially deplete the three area TIF accounts, leaving nothing else for Suarez—or Reboyras or Allen for that matter—to dish out.

Schools officials say all Suarez is really doing is delaying the opening of the new school and raising its costs. But it's hard to feel too sorry for them, since they've been willing players in Daley's TIF scheme. As they well know, they'd be doing much better if they teamed up with the other taxing bodies to keep Daley from siphoning off property tax funds in the first place. Instead they applaud the mayor for supposedly finding new revenue streams to finance school construction. About half the $500 million claimed by TIFs in 2006 is money that would've otherwise gone to the schools. So over the course of Daley's much-vaunted new schools initiative, set to run through 2013, the schools are likely to give up more than $2 billion in property taxes, and he's giving them $800 million back for new schools. Only a fool would call that a good deal.

By giving Daley control of so much of their money, the schools make themselves vulnerable to the power plays of savvy aldermen like Suarez. But as one schools official told me several years ago, it's the mayor's game and he makes the rules.v

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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