In the CMAP region, there are nearly 300 school districts (U.S. CDC) that vary widely in the number of students, the number and size of schools, the geographic size of the district and type of district (Elementary (k-8), High School (9-12), and Unit (k-12). With this many districts building new schools, additions, or renovating, it is not surprising that there is a great deal of variation. Building capacities, size of buildings, what are considered necessities, etc. are all things that can vary from one school district to another, and even within the same school district. In the CMAP region there are high schools with over 4,500 students (Stevenson) and some with less than 700 (Harvard). There are Jr. Highs with nearly 4,000 students (Unity Jr. High in Cicero is the largest Jr. High in the country) and elementary schools with more than 1,000 students. Yet there are school districts with less than 150 students (Rondout). Within the city of Chicago there are some of the largest and smallest schools. Even though variation is a part of the landscape, it does not mean that there cannot be areas of commonality that transcend any one school district.
In the last 10-15 years, two trends have emerged in the CMAP region that greatly impacts the location, size, and footprint of schools. First, a significant amount of the population growth taking place is in the far reaches of the region. The second trend is the spatial redistribution of the population within Chicago and some of the inner suburbs. The response to both trends has been to either add additions onto existing schools or to build new schools.
In the suburbs this has primarily meant adding capacity. Typically voters in various school districts have been asked to increase their taxes (via referendums) to support construction of new buildings or additions. In fact from 2002 through the 2008 primary over $4.3 billion in school construction bonds were approved by suburban voters to renovate, expand, or build new schools (Appendix 1). Developers in the meantime are increasingly being asked to pay higher impact fees, to reduce density, or both. As will be discussed, one of the primary drivers related to school construction in the suburbs has to do with local land-cash ordinances. Appendix 1 contains a list of all of the school construction bond referendums that have been approved by voters in recent years.
In Chicago and the inner suburbs, there are areas of population growth and decline which have created a spatial imbalance relative to where public schools are located. In Chicago, this has necessitated the reallocation of resources. While some areas of the city have experienced a fair amount of student population growth, other areas have witnessed steep declines in enrollment. This has created a situation in which many schools sit underutilized while others are overcrowded. Since 2001, enrollment in Chicago Public schools has decreased by 41,000 students, which has led to nearly 150 elementary schools being at least half vacant (CPS). In 2007 147 out of 417 elementary schools are anywhere from ½ to more than 2/3 empty. That compares with 30 or 40 underused schools in 2000 (Chicago Sun-Times). This has prompted Chicago Public school officials to announce that they will likely be closing or combining about 50 elementary schools over the next few years. With the amount of school construction activity taking place in the region, it is important to understand the dynamics that influence factors such as the location and size of schools. In this paper, most of the focus is placed on issues related to new schools, with less attention being devoted to the impacts associated with building additions or modifications.