Welcome to Chicago Newsroom

Welcome to the Chicago Newsroom home page and archive.

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The big idea behind Chicago Newsroom is that we assemble a small group of involved, knowledgeable people around the table and we yak about the week’s local news. Most often we tap journalists, but you’ll also find historians, political activists, academicians and newsmakers in the mix, too.

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It’s repeated on Fridays at 1:30 PM on CAN TV 19, and again on Saturdays at 7 PM on CAN TV 21. CAN TV is available to all Chicago subscribers of Comcast, WOW and RCN.

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CN July 24, 2014

On today’s show – a bit of a history lesson, largely from a few decades ago.
You’ve probably entertained this thought yourself – why is it, a hundred years after slavery, that black America still seems so far behind? In educational achievement, employment and just financial stability, African Americans consistently lag behind other ethnic and racial groups.

Well, let’s run a scenario. Let’s say your parents or grandparents were unhappy in Logan Square  in, oh, 1965, and they were able to scrape together a little down payment and buy one of those new ranch-houses in Niles for 39,000 dollars. When they passed away in the 90’s they were able to hand you and your sister that house, now worth about 270k, and a couple of IRA’s, enough to get you and your sister started on a fairly stable life, despite the economic downturns.

But now let’s adjust the scenario. You’re black and living in west Lawndale, and you, too have worked hard and saved a little bit of money. But there are no federal loan programs for you, because the banks and the government drew a red line around your neighborhood on a map. So the only way to buy that little house on 61st street was to buy it on contract from the seller. You make your payments for years, but you have no equity and the owner (who, by the way isn’t really the owner, but a predatory real estate dealer who got the house by scaring its former white owners out and picking the house up for a few thousand dollars) – that owner is free to ladle on all sorts of charges and fees, and makes no repairs on the house, so if you do make it through the contract sale, chances are you’re pretty much broke, and the neighborhood is filled with foreclosed or low-value houses, so you’ve spent your money and you have almost nothing to show for it.

That’s our question for today. What happens when generations of a family cannot accumulate wealth and pass it onto their kids? Is there anything that can be done to turn that situation around? What about a form of reparations? Not for slavery, as if that weren’t enough, but for the racist, predatory economic policies that were created, not in distant history, but in most of our lifetimes, and validated by our own local and federal governments? Can we do something about that?

Our conversation today is inspired by a striking piece in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called the case for reparations.

Our panelists are Hal Baron – historian, activist and former Director of Policy for the Harold Washington administration, and Salim Muwakkil, WVON host and senior editor at In These Times.


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CN July 17, 2014


So why’d she do it? Why did Toni Preckwinkle, sitting atop stunning poll numbers and rising support all over the city, decide not to take on Mayor Emanuel?

“There’s this whole network of very powerful, very wealthy people who’ve made it clear they want Rahm Emanuel to remain as mayor,” explains the Reader’s Mick Dumke. “So you have to kinda step on all of their toes and say, to hell with all of you, I’m taking him on – and then potentially divide the Democratic party. From what I can tell that is the biggest reason why she said, no thanks.”

And WBEZ’s Natalie Moore says there’s some truth to Preckwnkle’s claim that she has much more to do as County Board President. “We can’t under-play how important the County Board position is,” she tells us. “Her work is very important at this time about incarceration and who’s being locked up.”

“She almost single-handedly has managed to make the release of defendants from Cook County Jail a popular issue,” Dumke adds. “That was a third-rail issue for a long time, so let’s give her credit for all that.”

But there’s simply no denying the role money will play in the Mayoral election. Toni Preckwinkle, Dumke says, would’t have needed as much money as Emanuel, but “you’d have to cross all these powerful business people, these very powerful interests.”

And many of these business leaders have been funneling money to Mayor Emanuel from the beginning, despite the Mayor’s supposedly strenuous contribution regulations.

“A lot of these people do have business ties to the city one way or another,” Dumke explains. “They may not be getting contracts per se, but they’re sitting on the boards of banks that get bond work worth millions of dollars. They do business with people who do business with the city. Maybe their lobbyist isn’t allowed to contribute, but they contribute instead of their lobbyist. And the bottom line is – the guy can raise a lot of money.”

Karen Lewis has emerged as the one visible local leader apparently willing to run against the Mayor. But will she?

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she sits down and weighs all the options and decides that this isn’t the best route for her,” says Moore. “But I think the attention she is basking in gives her some political capital she can use in ways that aren’t just running for mayor.”

“She’s in a pretty good spot,” Dumke adds, “because I think she could, even by making a modest showing, impress a lot of people. She’s always described as fiery and people say she’s angry all the time, and, you know, that’s actually not true. If you hear her speak…she’s really articulate. She’s really smart. I think she would actually impress a lot of people.”

But Lewis is often characterized as a polarizing figure.  And that, says Moore, could set off a media firestorm. “This could be a battle of personalities and not about the substance. And if that does happen, I think reporters will start foaming at the mouth. Karen Lewis is painted, even in the national media… if you see someone calling someone the murder mayor, that’s going to be a turn-off and seen as hyperbole. But that tends to be what’s recycled about her, and not how she stands on issues.”

But Dumke points out that in at least one logistical sense, Lewis is well positioned. “She’s already got a grass-roots game that the mayor needs money to buy. The mayor actually does not have a ground political game. He’s a new politician. It’s money.”

Violence – particularly gun violence – continues to dominate the headlines in Chcago, especially during the recent July 4 weekend.  We asked the panel whether additional police could have improved the situation.

“The mayor and the police chief get too much credit and take too much heat when there’s violence,” Moore asserts. “I don’t think that these are policing issues. This is an issue of economics, this is an issue of poverty, an issue of segregation.”

“The number one violence issue in this city isn’t even gun violence,” she continues. “It’s domestic violence, if you’re listening to a police scanner. So we make decisions about what kind of violence to cover. We don’t really have a conversation about that.”

Since our show tends to be about both the issues and the media that covers them, we talked about the interconnection between the street violence and the coverage it gets.

“I believe that the way the media covers violence in this city is completely wrong,” Moore declares. “I’m so sick of the Monday morning count. There’s no empathy. It turns into this – Chicago, what’s wrong with you? – and then it becomes a national story. Chicago is not the murder capitol of the world, of the country, of even the midwest. But how do you say that to someone who’s experienced gun violence? People don’t want to look at stats. It’s this emotion, and the media is feeding into it, and it’s sexier and easier to do these counts than it is to talk about the issues. The most violent areas have a lot in common. Foreclosures, vacant property, food deserts, high poverty – all the worst outcomes you can have.”

And Dumke sums it up: “The gun factor is the lit match you’re throwing onto dry kindling.”


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July 10, 2014


There was a big announcement this week. Mayor Emanuel’s Commission has come back with its recommendation. It has green-lighted a $13 per hour minimum wage in Chicago, and the Mayor apparently supports it. But there’s a catch.

“It’s clear that Mayor Rahm did not want to press this issue,  Reader columnist Ben Joravsky claims. “He did not want to raise the minimum wage in a significant way because he did not want to alienate his core supporters in the business world who are against it. So he created a Commission that enabled him to come up wit this diluted, watered-down stuff that postpones it for five years – the headline is $13 an hour.

“That would be great next month,” adds Randell Strickland, the Dean of Restorative Justice at the south side’s Little Black Pearl high school.

“Yea,” says Joravsky. “Except that the month will be in 2018. He postponed it. The deal he’s got on the table now is actually worse than the deal he originally proposed.”

And, Strickland concludes, “I can assure you that five years from now $13 an hour will be as laughable as $8.25 is now.”

Strickland deals every day with young people who are trying to negotiate their way through neighborhoods stressed by random, unpredictable spikes of extreme violence.  There’s no easy solution for any of this, he tells us, but there’s no doubt that the seeds of today’s mayhem were planted long ago.

“What we are looking at is the legacy of decades – generations – of neglect,” he says. “If you ride the Red Line you see it. If you take a tour of the parks from the far south side to the north side you see it. The number of vacant lots, the quality of buildings, you see the progression, or the regression, of disproportionate distribution of income and resources and intention. We well know that in Chicago certain neighborhoods suffered from benign or malign neglect as a matter of policy. And this kind of violence is the kind of thing that results.”

Mayor Emanuel, speaking after the especially violent July 4th weekend, invoked the “code of silence” as part of the problem. “I wouldn’t say it’s a code of silence as much as it’s a code of violence, Strickland explains. “It’s not just an African-American problem, it’s an American problem. It’s a male problem.”

And it’s also a family problem, according to Strickland. Disinvestment and economic policy have torn the fabric of the family unit.

“I was born in 1968,” he tells us. “Most of the people that I remember from Henry Horner Homes, most of the families that I interacted with, had two parents. And everybody worked. My grandfather was a construction contractor. But everybody, their plan was – I’m going to save, I’m going to work. We’re all going to pull together, and move to the south side or to a better neighborhood, or to the west side, and most people did that. And all the families that I knew in the 70’s and into the 80’s pretty much did that, and then the recession happened, and that access out – stopped.

It was more than a recession, Joravsky points out, because that was the beginning of the de-industrialization of Chicago, when hundreds of local factories and businesses closed, falling victim to increased globalization and an inability to compete. And the poorest people in the poorest neighborhoods were often the first victims.

But it’s not all about outside macro-economic forces. Sometimes it’s local economic, zoning and land-use policy.

“I remember interviewing people on the west side in the 1980s,” says Joravsky. “And they were telling me, you watch. They’re gonna move the people out, and white people are gonna move in. Now this was kind of far west side, and I just couldn’t believe it back then. But I’ve watched the patterns of 25 years of public policy where you starve certain neighborhoods, and you invest in certain neighborhoods. Mayor Daley – in the name of poor people, we’re gonna tear down the public high rises. So they tear them down, in the name of poor people. Like closing schools, in the name of poor people. It’s always in the name of poor people. Then, once they’ve moved them out – Cabrini Green? They’re selling off the land, there’s development, they’re seeding it with public dollars through the TIF program, so, it’s like this is what they wanted.”

We pause to salute, with awe, the ability of Mayor Emanuel to raise gigantic baskets of campaign money, including his just-opened Chicago Forward Super PAC. Joravsky has even named it.

“I call it the 6-8-1 plan. In six days they got eight guys to kick in a million dollars.”

No potential Emanuel challenger has anything like the millions at the Mayor’s disposal, of course, so will it deter serious opponents from even trying?

“It was an intimidating shot from Mayor Rahm’s political machine. No question about it,” Joravsky concedes. “Anybody who’s thinking of running…has to realize there’s no way he or she’s going to compete with the Rahm money machine. So this is gonna have to be the once-in-a-lifetime moment when the people of Chicago- God help ‘em – are actually gonna take control of their life and do something as opposed to following.”

And Strickland adapts a presidential slogan to the Chicago electorate. “We are the ones we’re still waiting for,” he says.


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CN July 3, 2014


The White Sox don’t fill The Cell all that often, so here’s what it looks like when it’s full.


But did you know that, if you could bus every adult currently in prison in Illinois to this park, there would still be enough people outside to fill the Chicago Theater twice?

“We have about 20 adult facilities which range from  maximum security to mental health specific facilities to minimum security that house approximately 49,000 adults in Illinois.” explains Jenny Vollen-Katz, Director of Juvenile Justice for the John Howard Association.

And to stick with the baseball park for one more moment, you could almost fill it with the number of people who are released from Illinois prisons every year. And yet again with the people who are incarcerated each year, many of whom are the same people just coming back to prison.

“We don’t just send people away, and they go and we’re done with them,” explains WBEZ’s criminal and legal affairs reporter Rob Wildeboer. “No, 33,00 are coming back into the neighborhoods this year, with 72,000 people coming in and out of the prison system each year according to the Department of Corrections.”

And let’s not forget Cook County Jail, which is supposed to be largely a detention facility to hold people who can’t make bail until their trial. The population hovers around 10,000 people, although the population moves in and out quickly.

So who are these people?  “The vast majority are non-violent offenders,” Vollen-Katz explains. “And a huge number of them are mentally ill. Tom Dart has been quoted saying 28% of his population at Cook County Jail are mentally ill. National studies indicate numbers far higher in most correctional institutions. 73% of all women, 55% of all men are mentally ill within the national corrections system.”

But how to define “non-violent offender”?

Toni Preckwinkle, appearing on My Chicago with Odette Yousef, said this about Cook County Jail: “Most of the people in jail are there because they can’t pay their bond. And of the 90% who are awaiting trial, 70% are awaiting trial for non-violent crimes.”

But States’ Attorney Anita Alvarez, meeting with the press after a recent City Club speech, seemed to contradict Preckwinkle when she said that most people at Cook County Jail are repeat offenders, and that 82% of the population has two or more violent offenses in their past. So while their current charge may be something like drug possession, judges do take into account the offender’s legal history.

“What follows you is a rap sheet,” Vollen-Katz explains. “Saying how many times you’ve been in court and what you’ve been charged with and what the end result was, legally, of those charges. What doesn’t seem to follow anybody is something like a social history – the reasons someone is there, or the reasons they failed to be successful on probation…we don’t have a very full picture on individuals there, about why they’re there… there’s a lot of system failures before our criminal justice system that lead them there.”

“We need to get to a point,” asserts Wildeboer, “Where society can say yes, that’s a bad crime, but we still don’t think prison is the appropriate punishment for that…will we get to a place where the public will accept – yes we need to let some people go even though there’s some risk inherent there…dealing with mass incarceration is gong to take more than, oh, let’s just let out the non-violent offenders.”

So much of this conversation results, however from garden-variety politics. It’s vastly easier to increase fines and punishments for various offenses in the name of protecting the public. Nothing frightens a politician more than a flyer at election time screaming about how the incumbent has been soft on crime.  So, among other effects, there’s a race to create more mandatory minimum sentences, because politicians claim that judges don’t hand out strict enough sentences.

“The result is that we’re filling up our prisons faster, keeping them fuller longer, and we aren’t creating any more public safety,” says Vollen-Katz.

Lawmakers have also created “registries” for sex offenders, but as Wildeboer reported recently, the Chicago Police are turning away people on the registries who’ve served their time and are trying to comply with the law by re-registering. But citing insufficient manpower, the CPD closes the line hours before the hours posted on the door.

But, in the big picture, what is the function of a prison? Is it to punish? To rehabilitate? To educate or train? Or just to segregate people from society?

“The Illinois Department of Corrections does not have as a mission to rehabilitate those offenders that come in to it,” Vollen-Kattz explains. And Wildeboer adds, “Right now I believe the Department of Corrections spends two percent of its budget on rehabilitation.”

However, “if punishment is an important role for prison,  I think we’re doing a fine job”, concludes Vollen-Katz.

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CN June 26, 2014

Kristen McQueary and Tom McNamee, Editorial Page Editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and Kristen McQueary of the Tribune Editorial Board are our guests this week.  We discuss the Supreme Court ruling prohibiting police from searching electronic devices without a search warrant, the appropriateness of naming a City facility for Mayor Byrne and the so-far underwhelming Bruce Rauner campaign.

We also talk about the ever-evolving role of the print editions of major newspapers, as they become places for analysis and opinion and less the resource for breaking news. That’s a big part of the reason the Trib will be adding another full page of opinion and op-eds to its daily output.

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CN June 19, 2014


It’s a discussion about housing policy this week with Angela Caputo of the Chicago Reporter and Ethan Michaeli of We the People Media.

How much does it cost the City of Chicago to rehab an abandoned house to get it into salable condition? Surprise: a lot. But as Angela points out, some buyers are snapping abandoned places up, doing almost no repairs and marketing them as “voucher” dwellings, then charging the CHA up to a grand a month for rat-infested slums.

And you might not be surprised to learn that the City paid $594k to rehab a house at Montrose and Kimball, then sold it or $187k. And that $594k was less than the city’s housing rehab program spent in all of Roseland.

Here’s Angela’s excellent report on how housing rehab money is being spent across Chicago.

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CN June 12, 2014

Author Kari Lydersen and founder of the Resource Center Ken Dunn join us  for this week’s discussion. We talk with Ken about the current  state of recycling and the industrial overlay that’s required to recycle raw materials. Ken opines that recycling, valuable as it is, simply can’t substitute for a wholesale rethinking about how we use materials in the first place, and the dire need to reduce the rate of extraction of minerals, metals and fluids from the earth.

Kari discusses her new e-book Closing the Cloud Factories, which tells the intricate, complex story of the significant role community organizing played in closing the century-old Fisk and Crawford Coal plants in Little Village and Pilsen.

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CN June 5, 2014


Mike Sneed got the ball rolling by publishing a couple of thoughtful pieces about the forgotten legacy of Jane Byrne. It seemed unfair, she said, that this pioneering mayor – Chicago’s first and only female chief executive – should be almost purged from our history 35 years after her election. So the search is on for a suitable commemoration.

“Governor Pat Quinn came out this week saying the Circle Interchange would be good,” Says WBEZ political reporter Alex Keefe. “As a  driver I have zero fondness for the Circle Interchange – there’s just no upside to Circle Interchange. It’s a terrible place.”

There have been serious proposals to rename a portion of Navy Pier in her honor, since she got the ball rolling for its eventual revitalization. But WGN-TV’s Randi Belisomo says there’s another community where Byrne’s legacy could be celebrated.

“Look at the same-sex marriage movement, the movement for gay equality, and how she was the first Mayor to recognize Pride Week and to march in the parade,” she explains. “I think some sort of monument to her would be welcomed in the north-side Lakeview area because she was the first and she was dealing with a population that was struggling for equal rights.”

So what’s the report from Springfield, where major issues of taxes pensions and deficits continue to dominate the agenda?

“Right now we’re still feeling the fallout of all the things that did not happen in Springfield last week when the General Assembly adjourned for the summer,” Keefe says.

And Governor Quinn got pretty much nothing he wanted.

“They did pass a budget, but they did not pass Governor Quinn’s  income tax plan,” he explains. “Right now the personal income tax rate is at five percent, but it’s supposed to go down to 3.75. He wanted to keep it at five, he said there could be a few billion dollars of deficit. So right now the deficit’s there. The General Assembly did not pass that. He didn’t get his $10 minimum wage. He didn’t get the $500 real-estate property tax rebates, which has been a pillar of his campaign, and we haven’t seen any action on Chicago pensions yet.

Keefe says that Quinn must sign a bill allowing the City to raise property taxes by Monday, or it becomes law automatically. It’s possible, Keefe says, that the Governor might do an mandatory veto, authorizing a phased-in tax increase.

Meanwhile, Mayor Emanuel told WTTW last night that he’s going to keep trying to convince the City Council to pass a property tax hike to fund the deficit in the Municipal workers pensions. He said he is open to other ideas, but has rejected proposals by the CTU and others for  transaction tax on financial institutions or a “commuter tax” on people who work in, but live outside of, Chicago.

“It’s unclear what ideas he’s open to,” says Keefe. “And aldermen are skeptical of passing a property tax increase months before they have to go up for re-election. It’s the least popular thing they can do aside from taxing dogs or candy or babies or something.”

And, Keefe reminds us, what’s being debated right now covers only a small piece of the pension hole. “This bill that may or may not get the Governor’s signature on Monday only affects the pension funds for Chicago laborers and municipal workers. Police and fire pensions in Chicago have gigantic problems. Those are still unsolved. Chicago teachers’ pension fund has a gigantic problem that is still unsolved, and they still have to find revenue to deal with all this stuff.”

The Mayor has empaneled a Minimum Wage Task Force to evaluate the need for an increase in Chicago’s pay structure. Why a Task Force? Why not just pass something?

“This doesn’t happen a lot with big pieces of legislation,” says Keefe. “Usually we kind of see it at the last minute and then it gets crammed through the City Council. So it indicates that he’s trying to be more democratic or taking this more seriously. It’s not just something he’s going to bury.”

“The minimum wage is going up,” Belisomo states. “It’s just a matter of how much. Because if you look at the members of the Minimum Wage Task Force, it’s very heavily populated by people who’d be very much in favor of a hike in the minimum wage – liberal aldermen, union leaders, and even the members who represent commercial interests who you’d think weren’t favorable on this issue (including Therese Mintle, the Mayor’s former Chief of Staff and Sam Toia of the Illinois Restaurant Association). So I think the minimum wage will be going up – probably a phase-in program over the next 5-7 years like we saw in Seattle this week.”

The Cubs are leaving WGN radio. Probably a sound business decision, but one that rattles our sense of the essential Chicago. “It’s one more sign of the changing Tribune Company,” says Tribune employee Belisomo. “We no longer carry many newscasts nationally and we may not be affiliated with the Cubs in the television realm as well. We’re no longer carrying sports nationally, the Bulls and the Blackhawks. I think this says a lot about the Tribune Company, and I think the implications will be huge for the Cubs.”

The link between Chicago and the Cubs is personal for Belisomo. “I grew up in Memphis, watching the Cubs and Andre Dawson and Greg Maddux and I became a fan. And I was 5-600 miles away. (Losing coverage on the WGN Superstation) could be huge for the team. “

Belisomo covered the first day of legal same-gender marriage in DuPage County. She says although the 400 couples there who already had official domestic partnerships could have been married earlier in Cook County, some told her they waited for this day. “I wanted to do this at home,”  they stressed to her.” I wanted DuPage County to recognize my marriage. This is where we live, work, have our neighbors…they were so proud that their community now recognizes what they have been all along.”

Keefe was also in DuPage for the first-day ceremonies. “As one person put it to me, it was extraordinary how ordinary it was.”

And finally, the Lucas Museum. Belisomo  is generally supportive. “It would be a real boon to the city, and that’s not an area that people go to right now, the parking lots at Soldier Field. It’s a wasteland. But it could be put to good use and expand the lakefront.”

But there’s serious concern about whether such a museum, based on a single benefactor’s collection, can remain vital and relevant over the decades. Will a Lucas Museum, for example, take its place as a worthy companion to, say the Adler Planetarium?  Keefe is philosophical. “Are you putting the Star Wars legacy up against the legacy of the actual universe?” he asks. “As a Star Wars fan I’d advocate for the Star Wars Legacy.”

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CN May 22, 2014


Chicago’s pension systems for public-service employees are a mess.  Right now, the Chicago Fire Pension fund is only 24% funded. The Police Pension Fund is at 31%. There are major funding issues with the teachers’ pension fund and the fund for municipal workers.  But there are a couple of things the unions have in common. The most significant is that the employees have consistently paid in their required shares. The City hasn’t always done so, or has failed to provide necessary increases through the years.

And here’s something else the major pension funds have in common – at some time in the past, they were 100% funded, and quite stable. So what happened?

Let’s start with the teachers.

Jay Rehak is President of the Chicago teachers’ Pension Fund.

“In 1995,” he tells us, “the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago made a deal that the City would take over the pension payments. So you have the employee constantly making his or her 9% payments,  but for ten years, from 1996 to 2005, the City of Chicago paid absolutely no money into the pension fund.”

1995 was a watershed year in the history of teacher pension funding, according to George Schmidt, Editor of Substance News and a union activist for decades. “That’s when the real coup d’eta happened,” he says.”The General Assembly passed legislation that put the Chicago Public Schools in the hands of the Mayor, and it passed legislation that ended the separate property tax line on the tax bills to cover the pensions.”

And that’s a key event. A separate, dedicated property tax line was fed directly into the pension fund, keeping things stable. But when Springfield removed it, the City was allowed to use that money not only to pay pensions, but for other fiscal needs. And, not surprisingly, it stopped paying pension contributions.

“So,” Schmidt continues, “you had the teachers paying in, the property tax paid in, and for a hundred years, including the Great Depression, the teachers’ pension fund  remained solvent, and then suddenly, after 1995 it became a financial football which was at the mercy of City Hall and other political leaders.”

The situation is different with Police and Fire, but it’s no less dire.

“In Fire and police, we didn’t have any so-called holidays,” explains Dan Fabrizio, political action director at the Chicago Firefighters Union. “We have a flawed funding mechanism. We have  what they call a multiplier. So for every dollar we put in the City was supposed to put in $2.26. They have done that, but we’ve asked them to increase. Back in ’82 we asked them to increase and they gave us a nickel. Back in ’95, they gave us $50 million, and then subsequently took it away later on because they said they needed it. But every actuary that’s looked at our funding mechanism has said that it’s a flawed mechanism and it’s accounted for 60% of our debt today. Last year we were $169 million short on the actual required contribution.”

The normal cost in the fire fund is $80 million, Fabrizio tells us. “We’re paying half of that in our contributions. So in essence we’re paying half of our (pension) contribution.”

Rehak explains that teachers are not eligible for Social Security. “Social Security, people pay 6.2% of their salary and the employer pays 6.2%,” he says. “In our pension fund we pay 9%, which is almost 50% more, but in the private sector if an employer doesn’t pay their 6.2% they put those people in jail. In our situation we put our 9% in, the other guys don’t put anything in, and all we do is have legislation that says, y’know what? We’ve got to cut benefits.”

Because the City side has lagged for so long, the debt balloons each year, not unlike an unpaid credit-card bill.  So he unfunded liabilities keep climbing, and the numbers have become so large that there’s probably no solution that can please anybody. But these key union leaders make it clear that they don’t think they’re to blame. And if the solution is going to involve a combination of new funding and benefit cuts, they’re not willing to trust government to make the cuts and deliver the revenue sometime later.

“so now,” says Rehak, “we’re in a situation where the employer – and the politicians – are saying, we didn’t do our job, but they’re going to ask our members to have their benefits reduced… The problem is, even the solution that was just offered for the Municipal funds, you notice that the benefits were reduced, but the actual funding has not been resolved. Because the Mayor still hasn’t done the property tax increase. It’s like Lucy and the football here, where they’re constantly saying – we’re gonna do both, but one of them happens. The benefits are attacked, but the funding isn’t there. We believe the funding mechanisms must be secure before we deal with anything else.”

Pensions are often thought of as just cash payments to individuals, and when tax money helps fund them, taxpayers can be resentful. But you have to take a larger view, Rehak insists.

“People in a global economy, and the people of Illinois, have to understand that the money that is distributed by our pension fund – essentially all of that money is going locally. So at the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund we distribute 1.2 billion dollars a year to the local economy. 90% of that stays in Chicago and the Chicagoland area. The global economy impacts when you have people who are taking money out of the local economy. That’s a problem. But pensions keep that money inside the community. So the restaurants and the local businesses of this town and this area benefit a great deal from pensions.”

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CN May 15, 2014


Blaine Elementary’s principal Troy LaVierre made a grand entrance onto the education/political scene in Chicago this past weekend with his letter to the editor at the Sun-Times in which he gave voice to the frustration so many CPS principals seem to be feeling. Here’s part of what he wrote:

The administration’s interaction with principals is often insulting. During the debate over the longer school day, some principals questioned its merits. CPS officials were then dispatched to tell the principals their opinions didn’t matter. “You are Board employees,” a central office official told a room full of principals at a meeting, “and when you speak, your comments must be in line with the Board’s agenda.” He instructed us to have an “elevator speech” supporting the longer day ready at a moment’s notice. We were told that if Emanuel and the press walked into our schools, we’d better be prepared to list the benefits of his longer day. In a move that further humiliated principals, they were called on at random to give their elevator speeches at subsequent principal meetings.

“Principals, below the surface, are not happy. I hear it all the time.  And I think he just sort of opened up the flood-gate,” says Catalyst Chicago’s Sarah Karp.  In fact the discussion continued in the pages of Catalyst, as other principals expressed their agreement with LaVierre.

“He mentioned in his column that there were actually talking-points given to principals, and we know that the principals were sent a memo saying – don’t talk to the press, don’t even send out a letter to your children’s parents without getting it approved any Communications. The level of control is just unprecedented”.

And Karp says she sees the heavy-handed control first-hand. “When I go out to interview a principal, if I get in, they send out a communications person to sit next to me. Not every single time, but if it’s a story they’re a little more concerned about, they have someone sit next to me. That’s just such a waste of everyone’s time.”

With all the political strife surrounding Chicago schools, how is it that so few principals ever really speak out?

“That school, Blaine, is very affluent,” explains NPR National Desk reporter David Schaper. “The neighborhood is very affluent, I think most students come from backgrounds of relative privilege. And in that way, you had this Local School Council stand up and reject the essentially mandated budget that came from the central office last year. Now this is a school that has the capability of raising…additional funds themselves for extra positions and a lot of the extra things that a lot of people think are the necessities to build a strong education and curriculum.”

“Because he’s in a high-performing school, because his local school council supports him he can speak out, as many principals can’t,” Karp adds.

“What I think is interesting,” says Schaper, “is that in this narrative that was articulated on the (CNN) program Chicagoland that a lot of people think made the mayor look like a star, here are people  from the other half, the upper echelon, who are chafing under this Mayor’s control. If there are two Chicagos, both of them aren’t real happy with the way things are going right now.”

And Karp adds an interesting footnote. Fenger High School, which was featured so prominently in the program, and which portrayed principal Liz Dozier as fighting so valiantly to hold onto her staff, has suffered huge losses since the Chicagoland crews packed up. “Fenger lost thirty staff members this year. That’s like a third of their staff just gone,” she tells us. “The big federal grant that brought in a lot of the counselors you saw on that show went away this year. And, they have no students. So you’re getting hit with that double-whammy.”

Charlie Meyerson, Head of News Strategy at Rivet Radio, asks “are we in Chicago losing the concept of the neighborhood school? With all the emphasis on selective enrollment, the historic integration that took kids out of one neighborhood to go to another neighborhood, is that a concept that’s lost in Chicago?”

“I think it’s gone, especially at the high school level,” Karp responds.  Two thirds of high school students do not go to their neighborhood high school. The neighborhood high schools that do exist are almost alternative schools, in that they’re itty-bitty. You may have sixty kids in a class. If you have sixty kids in a freshman class, how many options can you offer those kids? These schools have just been drained.”

The Mayor and school board have indicated that school-based budgeting gives schools more control.  But Schaper says it may not look that way to principals. “It really put shackles on the principals and LSCs and how that can allocate their money,” he explains, “because it’s a funding formula based on how many students you have, and if you have, say, a lot of veteran teachers – you may have higher-paid teachers, and so now you have to look at rearranging the staff, or increasing class sizes in order to keep certain teachers there.”

And, as we saw in Chicagoland‘s coverage of Fenger’s situation, with increased pressure from charters and dropping enrollments in general, many traditional neighborhood schools are forced into a brutal struggle for survival.

“What principals were telling me last year,” says Karp, “is that they felt really bad, because they were letting kids in from other neighborhoods knowing that it was going to kill the neighborhood school four blocks away. But because they had slightly better test scores, or maybe an art program, they could draw those kids and they could get heir budget up. So it really does pit the principals against principals and schools against schools in a way that I’m not sure is completely healthy.”

And the battle over funding for school operations and staff pensions rages on.  A Sun-Times poll last week would seem to indicate that there might be support among the electorate for increased revenue, not just constant budget-cutting. But Meyerson doesn’t think it means the people are asking to be taxed more heavily.  “No, I don’t think they are. But some people who’ve been polled say they are. And the other question is, are the politicians willing, regardless of what people say, when they have to approve a tax and they have to answer for it at election time?”

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