With $2 billion backlog of repairs, CPS’ piecemeal approach to fixing problems fails to guarantee clean, safe, healthy schools for students and staff


Stop General Iron: students march

Photo: Oscar Sanchez

CPS school buildings need a lot of work — $2 billion in upgrades by the district’s own assessment — for the sake of our students and our environment. Nearly 70 percent of the greenhouse gasses emitted each year in Chicago come from buildings and, with old gas furnaces, our schools are belching pollution and CO2 into our neighborhoods. CPS even admits that school emissions are equivalent to burning 900 rail cars of coal per year. 

Our schools are also dirty, outdated, and full of harmful toxins including lead, asbestos, and mold that pose a danger to the students and staff who inhabit the buildings. Not only do many schools have thousands of square feet of asbestos, much of it is categorized as “friable” or damaged. This means it can become airborne and dangerous to the health of students and staff, even potentially causing cancer. Many of the faucets and water fountains in our buildings contain lead at levels the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies as dangerous. Lead, especially, poses a serious health risk to the young children we serve and has been found to cause functional and behavior problems. 

Piecemeal repairs aren’t enough

CPS does some piecemeal repairs but, too often, schools on the South and West sides with the most renovation needs are the last in line when it comes to capital expenditures. Who is first is often based on political opportunity and what looks good in an election year. We need a process that is inclusive, just, transparent, and prioritizes Black and Brown communities. We need a CPS capital plan that brings our schools into the 21st Century to provide students with modern facilities, avoid the worst impacts of the global climate crisis and carry us into a sustainable future. 

With the help of CTU’s Climate Justice Committee, the union has launched a new campaign to fight for clean, green, and fully resourced schools. We are fighting for schools that are free from harmful toxins. We are also fighting for modern, energy efficient ventilation, heating, and cooling systems — upgrades that are crucial when combating an airborne, lethal virus like COVID-19. 

We are advocating for green spaces, solar panels, community gardens and other sustainable practices connected to empowering curriculum that gives our students the skills to advocate for their future and find careers in the new green economy.  

Given that CPS has more than a $2 billion backlog of needed capital improvements and repairs, green renovations couldn’t come soon enough. CPS is updating its facilities master plan this school year, so now is the time to make our demands heard. Read more about our demands in the facilities section of CTU’s Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve 3.0.

Organizing for green schools

To kick off the campaign, CTU staff and committee members have started meeting with school leaders who are concerned about building reports that detail dangerous levels of lead, asbestos and mold. We are finding that teachers and parents want to do something about their sub-par facilities. 

If you are interested in getting involved, the first step is to reach out to the union. We can help you gather your safety committee or PPC and do a walk through of your building. Common facilities concerns include inadequate heating or cooling in classrooms, windows that won’t open, ventilation problems, and damaged ceiling or floor tiles. 

Washington High School and Elementary School lead the way

The campaign at Washington High School and Washington Elementary School provide a glimpse of what can be done when teachers, students and community members come together to demand modern, green and healthy school buildings. 

After coming together as a community last year to successfully stop a toxic metal shredder, General Iron, from setting up shop across the street from their schools, Washington High School and Washington Elementary School developed a heightened awareness of the connection between environmental hazards and the well-being of their students, staff and community. 

Members of these school communities began to look at their overcrowded buildings filled with leaks and toxic substances, including asbestos and lead, and saw a need for change. This spring, Washington High School members held a union meeting and started brainstorming the idea of demanding not just a new building to replace the old crumbling infrastructure, but a new, state of the art, green school building. 

Then on the last day of classes in June, a whole section of the ceiling collapsed in a main hallway of the school. Teachers sprang into action posting pictures online and the CTU partnered with staff, students and local environmental activists to convene a press conference calling for a new green school

By September, the district had responded by fixing the ceiling, but teachers and parents are not ready to call it quits. The school community continues to organize around demands for new green school buildings for both schools. In November, they held a community meeting with architecture students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to further develop their plan for new green schools. 

“CPS and the City of Chicago talk incessantly about equity and the importance of creating green infrastructure, while failing to construct concrete plans for doing so in many low-income and predominantly Black and brown communities like the 10th Ward,” Donald Davis, a teacher at Washington High School said. “So the push for two new green schools in my neighborhood is about a longer-term priority of bringing equity and reversing the effects of global warming.”

The George Washington school communities are already garnering attention and are feeling confident change is on the horizon, but of course, there are many more school buildings in Chicago that need to be replaced or renovated. Our aim is to build a city-wide campaign to demand a fair and transparent CPS facilities plan that prioritizes the schools with the most need. 

Do you want to fight for modernized, clean, green and healthy school buildings? Reach out and join our campaign for green schools today.