The pandemic has made abundantly clear the need for school facilities that are safe and well ventilated. Chicago is behind the curve in this area. As outlined in the two previous editions of this report, we described in detail the challenging conditions of many school buildings and the lack of comprehensive planning across the city, especially in disadvantaged and disinvested communities. Provided with an important opportunity and clear need to update its approach to facilities management, CPS instead has failed to invest sufficiently in updating ventilation and continued to prioritize wealthy communities in its facility decisions.

Lack of long-range planning

CPS has nearly 1,000 buildings that span roughly 140 years in age. Like most CPS administrative departments, outside consultants do the bulk of the work (to the tune of $25 million annually) while the Facility Operations and Maintenance Department suffers from high turnover and vacancy rates. This administrative churn, coupled with a lack of comprehensive planning, results in chaotic and wasteful annual capital plans that are based on political relationships or imperatives instead of safety and need. Even the conservative Civic Federation has lambasted CPS for its total disregard for capital planning.

State law requires CPS to develop a comprehensive, 10-year facilities master plan (FMP) to guide all of the capital planning and facility maintenance in the district. The district is supposed to update the plan every five years and the plan is supposed to be driven by public input, demographic and housing trends, equity, transparency and financial prudence. The annual capital plans are supposed to align with the district’s 10-year master plan. But there is no real public oversight of the capital improvement program, and school capital decisions are driven more by local politics than citywide need. Now the district is heading into the new school year with billions needed in deferred critical maintenance in unsafe school buildings while COVID is still running rampant, all without a public plan to prioritize needs.

The lack of planning leads to situations where facilities decisions force tradeoffs and competition between schools. The proposed new Chinatown/South Loop High School is instructive. Half of the students in the new attendance area are assigned to Tilden High School in Canaryville or Phillips High School in Bronzeville. Both of these schools are over 100 years old and serve primarily low-income Black and Brown students. Both schools have small enrollments and thus lack the funding under CPS’ funding formula to provide a variety of academic and supportive programming. Dunbar High School, a citywide vocational school, and Jones College Prep, one of the city’s top selective enrollment schools, are also nearby. Consequently, building a new school leads to cascading effects on other schools beyond just the $130 million in new school construction costs. Top CPS officials themselves privately warned top CPS and City brass that a new Near South school could undermine neighboring schools and harm Black students, according to the Sun-Times, prompting State Rep. Theresa Mah, one of the new school’s most vocal proponents, to pull $50 million in state funding for the project until Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS team meaningfully address community concerns. Yet the mayor continues to seek to push the project forward by using land promised years ago as replacement housing for public housing residents, despite growing public concerns.

As the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) has shown, Black students in Chicago suffer from the worst school dispersion rates, traveling across the city in search of a school that is sufficiently funded, staffed and supportive.

Advocates for a new school say they need more support for Chinese students and a school that is closer to their community. These legitimate concerns could be addressed by a new school, but they also could be addressed in other ways. CPS could add more resources into nearby Phillips, Dunbar and Tilden high schools, and by expanding community seats at Jones high school. The district can fund bilingual staff positions and parent workers, add STEAM and IB programs, and facilitate community dialogues to break down the barriers that deter parents and students from electing to attend existing schools.

Building a new high school when citywide enrollment is declining and the utilization rate of existing schools is so low is reckless. Prioritizing a new school while ignoring the needs of Black students in nearby schools is blatantly racist. The district had already attempted to displace black students in order to convert National Teachers Academy to a new South Loop high school until a federal judge blocked it on the grounds it violated their civil rights.

Meanwhile, Washington High School is literally falling apart. This school building, which is full of asbestos and lead, is located in one of the most polluted areas of the city. While the school community has long demanded a new green building, CPS has failed to allocate capital support, even after the ceiling came crashing down the last week of school, hitting a teacher and potentially dispersing asbestos fibers.

Poor school accessibility

In 2017, the much-beloved, veteran school clerk of Whittier Elementary school in Little Village, Judy Mahoney, was partially paralyzed in a tragic car accident. CPS told her that her school could not get the capital repairs to accommodate her wheelchair. The CTU and disability rights organizations fought back and, in the end, the union member was given the right to work at an accessible school until she retires.

Since that time, CPS has “committed $100,000,000 over the next five years to make every CPS school at least 1st floor accessible.” But limited accessibility only to the first floor of a school building is not accessible — and is not acceptable. We need and can have fully-accessible schools. CPS is currently installing elevator shafts in three-story, 100-year old schools. This is not a question of what is physically possible. It is a question of priority. CPS is currently allocating only 4.5% of the FY23 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) renovations. While this number is actually the highest proportion ever allocated for ADA repairs, the effort remains grossly insufficient. Whittier Elementary, Judy Mahoney’s old school, is still not slated for any ADA repairs five years after her accident.

As of the 2021 school year, one third of CPS schools were completely inaccessible and only six schools were fully accessible. The FY21, FY22 and FY23 capital plans will make an additional 80 schools “first floor accessible.”

StatusTotal Schools% of Total
Not Accessible18930%
1st Floor Usable447%
Generally Accessible41%
Fully Accessible61%

Misguided funding

CPS targets capital dollars for political optics, not safety and equity. CPS recently began asssigning a socio-economic need score to schools and purportedly uses that to prioritize decision-making for the annual CIP, but the manner in which it publishes this information is both confusing and incomplete. CPS simply lists the projects it is planning for the year, half of which are only listed as “citywide” or “various” (with no specific schools identified), and then adds a list of schools and their respective socio-economic score. This list does not tell the public how many schools with high-need socio-economic scores and critical repair needs are not making the cut this year. The public also does not know how many low-need schools without any critical repair needs were able to jump the line and get capital funding for programmatic upgrades, cosmetic upgrades or overcrowding relief.  

Other cities have more robust prioritization calculators. The industry standard is to use a Facilities Condition Index, which calculates the cost of the needed capital improvement over the estimated replacement cost. Some school districts require a thorough impact analysis to approve a project, detailing how nearby schools will be affected by the project. Most large districts have interactive maps and databases online to allow the public to see how capital dollars and renovations are allocated across the district. It is long past time for CPS to do the same.

Green buildings and the fight for environmental justice

Schools with dangerous levels of lead, asbestos, and mold are widespread across the district. Most of our schools have inefficient and underperforming heating and cooling systems housed inside older, energy-inefficient buildings, which result in unhealthy air and classroom temperatures that are often too hot one day and too cold the next.

Meanwhile, The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared a Climate Emergency and declared that in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. The message is clear. There is a short window of time for all institutions, including school districts, to take decisive action to transform our infrastructure and energy usage to ensure a sustainable and livable future.

As with most social conditions in Chicago, the impact of environmental pollution and the risks associated with climate change are amplified by the city’s segregated racial geography. Dozens of schools located in the city’s industrial and transportation core face the highest burden of environmental exposure, as the map below from the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) shows (CTU updated the map with school locations).

CPS needs to significantly increase green building initiatives to help mitigate some of the pollution that is greatly impacting the lives of many Chicagoans, but mostly low-income BIPOC communities. There are approximately 66,685 students and 7,836 staff working in 13 schools in the highest polluted census block groups.

Map labeled Cumulative Burden of Environmental Exposure. Most of Chicago is at least at level 3 out of 10. The most concentrated at 10 out of 10 are on either side of Interstate 55 and on the southeast side. Interactive map and data sets linked.

The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) created a similar dataset as the NRDC, “to identify neighborhoods that should be prioritized for efforts to mitigate and reduce air pollution to better protect public health,” yet it does not seem that the city is listening.

Asthma is a dangerous preexisting health condition that poses a huge threat for people who contract COVID. Asthma rates in Chicago are higher than national averages and are highest in the most polluted areas of the city. These also are areas where schools should not be opening classroom windows and schools need extra air filtration, which they do not have. The school buildings themselves can also negatively impact children with asthma through mold, dust, roach and rodent droppings. According to the American Lung Association, Chicago ranked 18th on its list of most polluted cities in 2019, but in the last three years, the city has moved up to 16th.

Map labeled Chicago Air Quality and Health Index, 2020. The entire west and south sides show extremely poor air quality, ranging from 5th to 9th decile in poor air quality. Complete data sets linked to graphic.

How should CPS address climate change and environmental racism via school facilities?

Heating, cooling, and ventilation for student health and learning in the 21st century

Old and inadequate HVAC and ventilation systems belch CO2 and fail to filter COVID or reliably keep the indoor air healthy for our students to breathe. Poor air quality can cause asthma attacks in our students and staff, especially in many of our neighborhoods with high rates of asthma.

The findings from experts are clear: the health of a school building affects the health and academic success of its students. Rather than locking in decades of further pollution and CO2 emissions with gas powered HVAC, our schools should employ modern electric and geothermal HVAC systems that run on renewable energy and provide better ventilated, more reliable heating and cooling for a better learning environment.

Zero-energy new construction

70% of greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago come from buildings. Buildings, including schools, produce 40% of carbon dioxide in the country and scientists have been clear that they must be retrofitted and weatherized as soon as possible to mitigate and prepare for climate change. Going forward, all new school buildings must be zero-energy school buildings to ensure our schools and our students are ready for a future already being shaped by the reality of climate change and the need for sustainability.

Commitment to renewable energy that benefits schools and communities

CPS must commit to a program for the installation of solar panels, green renovations and deep energy retrofits for all schools in the district to improve our students’ learning environments and fulfill its responsibility to safeguarding our children’s future. Retrofitting and solarizing our schools can provide substantial savings and revenue for our schools and communities. The district must ensure that the benefits and value of the energy produced go to the schools.

There are 53 schools with rooftop solar panels, and a new solar panel manufacturing program at Juarez High School. CPS should greatly expand this important CTE program to additional schools so we can train students to build and install solar panels on every school building in the city.

Electric school buses

“Diesel is a pollutant that is connected to lung cancer, asthma, and autism…” With support for electric transportation coming from Illinois’s new Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and $5 billion for clean-energy school buses from the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, money is available to start using exhaust-free, electric school buses that reduce the risk of health consequences while also reducing carbon emissions.

Career and Technical Education for the new green economy

Our students need high quality career and technical education that will prepare them for the green economy of the future. In addition to expanding CTE across the board, CPS should work with unions to expand renewable energy pre-apprenticeship programs like the solar energy programs already in place at Juarez and Prosser High School, which serve as pipelines for high-paying unionized jobs in the building and energy sectors.

Integrate climate justice education with new sustainable practices

As the reality of the climate crisis increasingly shapes all aspects of life, climate and environmental education should be integrated across grades and subjects and connected to our students’ communities and experiences. Students deserve experiences starting at the earliest grades learning about sustainability through real interactions with onsite renewable energy infrastructure and other essential sustainable practices such as community gardens and composting programs. Most importantly, our schools should equip our students with the knowledge and skills to advocate and organize for the solutions we need for a sustainable future on earth.

CPS doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to land strong, climate-friendly policy. It could start by embracing visionary California SEIU Local 1021 Climate Contract demands for schools, utilizing robust AFT climate campaigns — including the AFT-sponsored K-12 climate action plan, adopting new UTLA contract proposals for healthy, green public schools, incorporating Boston’s green new deal for public schools  — or deploying the CTU’s proposals for green schools.


  • The state legislature needs to tie CPS’ capital bond issuance to facility master planning in the district to compel CPS to follow the law that is already in place but not enforced.
  • HVAC and indoor air quality must be the top priority for the capital budget citywide. Period.
  •  ADA cannot be limited only to first floor accessibility. Every building must be fully accessible. ADA upgrades need to be a larger proportion of the annual capital plan.
  • We need to double the number of custodians, allow principals to have direct oversight over custodians, and ensure they all have sufficient supplies every day.
  • CPS needs to readjust attendance boundaries and stop paying for additions or new school buildings without meaningful agency and input from stakeholders, including parents, students, educators, advocates and neighborhood residents.
  • All of CPS’ capital planning needs to incorporate green building initiatives. Expand the solar panel initiative to more schools and train students in solar tech.

Section One Conclusion

From green buildings and the fight against environmental racism, to equitable access to technology and trauma support for students in crisis, the CTU has laid out the scope of needs our students and their educators confront. These needs have lingered for years and have only grown more acute after more than two years of turmoil and hardship under COVID. CPS can — and must — do better by our students and provide Chicago’s schoolchildren with the schools they deserve.