CN Jan 18 2018 (Education)


Guest host Craig Newman welcomes  the Chicago Reporter’s Kalyn Belsha and Sun-Times eduction reporter Lauren FitzPatrick  for a conversation about he state of education in Chicago and the future of CPS under new CEO Janice Jackson. Belsha also discusses her reporting on the drastically changing dynamic at CPS as thousands of African American students have left the system.

You can listen to this program on SoundCloud here.

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CN Jan 11 2018 Michael Wasney

Over the past decade, the Chicago Police (and, for that matter, other urban police departments) have come to rely more and more heavily on technology, apps and database management to supplement their police work. Some might fear it’s slowly supplanting command decisions.

Chicago’s police stations, many of them built new during the 80s and 90s, were constructed with robust internet backbones in order to quickly accommodate the rapidly-approaching tech revolution.

Today, it’s here.

Pole-mounted cameras have been around for years, along with laptops in patrol cars and electronic files for offenders and contacts.

But what Michael Wasney wrote about in last week’s South Side Weekly is far more advanced than many Chicagoans might have expected.

It’s called The Shots Heard Round the City.

It has to do with ShotSpotter, just one suite of software the CPD has now deployed against street violence.

“They told me that this was actually the most rapid rollout of ShotSpotter that SST Incorporated, the company that manufacturers it has ever done,” Wasney explains. “So I actually did not get that confirmed before press time by the CEO, but I think that is very reflective of how emphatically they have embraced this technology, despite the fact that A) they’ve had dissatisfactory results with ShotSpotter in the past, and B) many other cities have faced concerns about its effectiveness, possible legal oversteps with regards to constitutional rights and eavesdropping laws.”

So what can this rapidly-deploying technology do, exactly?

“So as it stands, I guess by the end of February the Chicago Police Department plans to have around 130 square miles of the City blanketed by this acoustic gunshot protection software,” Wasney begins.

And for the record that 130 square miles is almost half the the total city footprint.

“It’s a lot,” he continues, “Which makes sense because again, by the end of February they plan to have 12 of the 22 police districts in Chicago blanketed by the software…it’s basic technology that is literally a physical acoustic box basically. It’s about the size of a toaster. It’s put on rooftops, telephone poles. I think the company advertises that they like it to be above 20-feet above the ground for optimum efficiency, and basically I think there are supposed to be about 24 sensors per square mile, although that varies depending on specific features of where it’s placed – topography, the density of buildings, how tall the buildings are, etc., etc. But essentially that’s going to be in 12 of the 22 police districts, and essentially what happens is say a gunshot is fired, three of the sensors will basically pick up the sound of the gunshot and you need three basically to triangulate it. That sound is then effectively sent to the California headquarters, I think it’s in Newark, California, of ShotSpotter, where it’s essentially determined by human experts as to whether it’s actually a gunshot, at which point it is pinged back to the Police Department and also to smartphones.”

The company claims that its Chicago installations are accurate to 80 feet. Standard Chicago bungalows are often on 25X125 lots, so if a gun is fired on the front porch, the Spotter will find it on that lot or maybe one house away.

But here’s the tricky part. These Shot-spotters are, after all, microphones, and they’re always recording. What happens, we ask Wasney, to all that recorded material?

“Even before a gunshot is fired,” he explains, “The microphones are always recording, and all of that data is retained in a server, which is physically based in California. So all of that auditory sound data is being downloaded onto the server, and then not just when a gunshot is fired, when a sound that whatever the algorithm is, when a gunshot is fired and the algorithm kind of detects that as a possible gunshot then the two seconds of audio before the boom and four seconds after is basically sent to the California headquarters, where then that’s the first time that you see a human expert involved in the process, at which point they go through an extra vetting process where they determine is it actually a gunshot, is it a firework, is it like a car. If it is confirmed to be a gunshot at that point it’s pinged back to the CPD or whatever other agency is using this technology. So, yes, all of the sound data is preserved on their server, although at a certain point it is deleted just for reasons of storage and data.

But, we ask, does that raise issues of people being inadvertently recorded, in a way they wouldn’t have wanted, that has nothing to do with a gunshot or a crime?

“It has happened,” Wasney asserts. “Not in Chicago, but it has happened. There have been several cases, and this has raised a lot of alarm and controversy concerning Fourth Amendment rights and, again, eavesdropping statutes. I believe it happened in Oakland, California. I also believe it happened somewhere in Connecticut, where basically someone fired a gun and in the two seconds prior and four seconds after they basically said something that ended up incriminating them and it was used in court to incriminate that person. Which obviously the representatives of the defendant raised concerns that that was overstepping the constitutionally-allowed… It was basically infringing on the constitutional rights of the defendant.”

And one more issue. Chicago doesn’t own this equipment. We’re not installing it. And We don’t own the rights to it. But we buy our own data from the company.

“So,” Wasney explains, “As it stands ShotSpotter is a subscription service and it was not always that way. This technology has actually been around for decades at this point, but I think once it was 2011 or 2012 the company made a transition from a high-priced system that an agency would buy fully to a subscription service, and there are probably a couple of reasons behind that. One, it was really really expensive for an agency to purchase the software, but I think another reason was honestly because they now have the ability to keep the data and the data is proprietary, so they can sell it if they wish.

There’s so much more in this discussion. There’s CPD’s use of HunchLab, predictive policing software that Wasney describes as “essentially a machine-learning software that basically predicts crime, and where crime will happen,” and helps identify “hotspots” in the City.

“A huge worry around a software like this is that it will simply act as a proxy for other biases,” he asserts, “So if you are having historical crime data that is for the most part focused on the south and west sides of Chicago simply because historically there’s been an over-policing of those areas.”

And finally, this from Wasney’s South Side Weekly article:

“The vast majority of alerts received from the SST’s headquarters to CPD, back to the Chicago Police Department, the vast majority resulted in dead ends. There was no evidence found, no reason to begin a case, let alone make an arrest. Of 4,814 unique ShotSpotter-linked events identified by the OEMC’s data just 508 of 4,800, a little over 10%, resulted in the CPD finding enough evidence to open an investigation. That’s roughly analogous, and this is important, with the rate of cases opened from solely human-related gunshots reported to 911.”

Listen to this discussion on SoundCloud.

Read the full transcript of  this discussion here:transcript Jan 11 2018 Michael Wasney


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CN Jan 11 2018 Stacy Davis Gates


Stacy Davis Gates is the Political Director for the Chicago Teachers Union.

She’s been a student, teacher, a principal and a parent at many Chicago Public Schools, but at some point in her life she decided it was time for activism. She joined the CTU, she says, because she saw the public schools as a fulcrum for change.

“You can drive down entire city blocks in Englewood and see the divestment, see the divestment, not disinvestment, because that would presuppose that there is some idea of investment. You know there’s been divestment in that community, so this is basically the cherry on top of the divestment sundae that the families in Englewood have been dealing with.”

Specifically, she’s telling us about the recent hearing in Englewood to seek the community’s approval for closing four neighborhood high schools in return for the promise that an expensive new one will be built there in the years to come.

“The hearing last night,” she claims, “was tragic in a number of ways. You know you see black mothers in this City begging and crying for identity, to be seen, to have their needs for safety, to have their needs for public education, to have their needs for gainful and stable employment addressed. And so, what we saw last night were more tears. What we saw last night was more begging, more teeth gnashing, and it’s something that’s really tragic, especially in Chicago.”

CPS has offered the premise that the action is not just a closure, it’s a consolidation, and that the consolidation is what the community wants. She’s not buying it.

“These schools too, little known fact, they are meeting every requirement that they need to meet, right?” she demands. “Against all odds of disinvestment, of invisibility that they experience in that space, those students are still making the mark. Those teachers are still coming back every single day. Those PSRPs and clinicians they are doing the best that they can with the little investment that they’ve received, and they are still hitting their marks. So when they hear closure, when they hear we can’t invest in you or we can’t provide you with the basic necessities, then there’s a rage, there’s the tears.”

We ask about Janice Jackson, who has recently risen to the top post at CPS, and who, like Davis Gates herself, has children in CPS schools, attended them herself and had worked in them as a teacher and a principal. Doesn’t that give her optimism that Jackson might be more in touch with the CPS parents and might be more sensitive about difficult school actions?

“We are a mayoral-controlled school district,” she begins. “Mayoral-controlled school districts is a failed policy. She’s going to take orders like the other six CEOs of the district took orders because the Mayor is still in control. People can have the best intentions, but the impact is what it is, quite frankly. The impact is that our schools are being defunded. Black educators are being pushed out the door because of student-based budgeting. We had a school district that once reflected the student population and it no longer does that. So I am clear that until we have an elected representative school board, until mayoral control in the Chicago Public Schools is a relic of the past, that we’re going to have the same types of impact with every single CEO.”

“And they also say that they weren’t closing all four high schools either,” she concludes. “They also said it would be a consolidation and we’re not experiencing either of those things now. So why would anyone who understands the way in which CPS and the City of Chicago work, why would they believe them?”

You can hear the entire discussion on SoundCloud here.

And you can read a full transcript here:CN transcript Jan 11 2018 Stacy Davis Gates


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CN Jan. 4 2018

Two accomplished, knowledgeable journalists join us today for a January 4 status-check.

What are the stories that we’ll all be following for a big chunk of 2018?

We start with Chris Kennedy’s recent assertion that Mayor Emanuel has a “Strategic Gentrification Plan” for the removal of low income people, particularly blacks and Hispanics, from Chicago.

Hal Dardick, City Hall reporter for the Tribune, isnt buying it. “I think it was an amazing accusation without any evidence that anything had been plotted,” Dardick suggests, and he offers a defense of Mayor Emanuel. “But he’s done more to try and invest money into those communities, especially Pullman which has seen something of a turnaround, and he’s trying,” he explains. “You can argue about whether it’s enough and you can say that it’s a problem that needs greater attention, but to say that the Mayor is purposely committing what I would call gentricide in the City, I don’t think that, and Kennedy’s not making any friends by doing it.”

Madeleine Doubek, Director of Policy and Civic Engagement at the Better Government Association, says Kennedy is running a kind of specialized campaign. “He’s not really running a statewide campaign and I think his two appeals are this latest bombshell accusation really. And then the notion that, he’s kind of running as the anti-establishment candidate, that Mike Madigan has a conflict of interest as a property tax appeal lawyer and that public officials shouldn’t be able to do that and serve in public positions,” she says. “I think that’s kind of where he tries to reach out to progressive voters.”

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios has come under withering scrutiny lately for his haphazard methods of assessing properties, and some clear evidence that he’s been favoring big property owners over poorer homeowners.

But Dardick says he’ll be running in a primary, where voter turnout is light, and that could make traction for his opponents difficult. “The Mayor hasn’t really spoken out against him, and he’s a close ally of Toni Preckwinkle’s,” he explains, “And those people have troops that they can get out on election day and turn out a vote, so it’s very tough to beat him…Chris Kennedy is a supporter. I don’t know how much that helps necessarily, but it’s going to be a really interesting race. I think one of the most interesting races of the year, and I think the other thing to look for is whether, because Toni Preckwinkle is seen in all these pictures with Joe Berrios, filing election petitions, whether that and the highly controversial pop tax become a couple of albatrosses around her neck.”

Two days ago, the Illinois “tax credit scholarship program” took effect. It was a measure that was added  to the budget just hours before the final vote, and was never debated by the legislature. It allows Illinoisans to “donate” up to a million dollars into a fund that supports tuition payments to private and parochial schools and receive a 75% tax credit for the “donation.” In a little more than 24 hours, the scholarship received $36 million in contributions.

“This,” laments Doubek, “would not be a case of extreme transparency and public discourse.”

“I think there are huge public policy implications here,” she asserts,  “that really are going to need to be examined, and that’s at a time when the State still has huge structural budget problems. That’s essentially $36-million that you just took away from the public’s coffers to help pay bills that are months and months overdue, so there’s that question. This was a situation and an arrangement that was worked out between the Republican Governor Rauner and some of the Republican legislative leaders that had the backing of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and the Cardinal has some sway with Democratic leadership, and so here we are.”

Bruce Rauner’s up for election in 2018, but he first has to survive a primary challenge from Jeanne Ives. Ives has almost no money to run against the billionaire Governor, but Doubek thinks that might not be a big factor.

“I think that’s a fascinating race too,” she tells us, “And one that money might not be as important in because it’s really an ideological thing, and there are a lot of people around the State who are not happy with the Governor and his performance and angry about his signing HB40, the abortion bill, which is what I think really tipped the scales and prompted Jeanne Ives to run. And so, I suspect those people were never going to vote for Bruce Rauner again anyway if they had an opportunity to vote for someone else, and they do.”

When Lisa Madigan announced that she would not run for re-election as Illinois Attorney General, she opened the floodgates for candidates seeking her job. Doubek says one of her – and the BGA’s – key concerns is that the AG’s office is the chief protector of the Freedom of Information Act, and it’s important to know where the candidates stand on maintaining a healthy FOIA process.

“There’s an office within the Attorney General’s Office called the Public Access Counselor,” she explains, “who is somewhat empowered and probably could be much more empowered to kind of intervene in cases where citizens, some of whom are journalists, are just trying to get information out of our government bodies and are being stymied along the way.”

But with at least seven candidates in the race, how is the voter to know who’d be strongest FOIA supporter?

“I think we all need to be concerned about it,” she continues.  “And I think we need to find out where all these candidates are on this, and are they even focused on it. Because so far I’ve heard a lot about how the Attorney General is going to take on President Trump and fight some of his comments and things that he said about Chicago violence and immigration and so on and so forth, which you know, are certainly also important issues. But there’s a very basic function in that office that is critically important to all of us knowing what our officeholders are doing behind the scenes.”

Dardick adds that FOIA isn’t the only critical issue the next AG will have to face.

“I think where they stand on the police consent decree and how strongly they are going to try to enforce it. Because we go back to the issue of intractable crime in the City of Chicago – a lot of it has to do with trust in the community. They can’t solve crimes because nobody in the community trusts them, and the consent decree could go a long way to rebuilding that trust and making sure that there’s strong oversight to reform in the police department,” he asserts.

In addition, Dardick tells us that the next Attorney General must be mindful of what police reform will cost. “Everyone likes to talk about how much it would cost to enforce the consent decree, because nobody really wants someone looking over their shoulder all the time,” he points out. “But if you start just to look in the last 60 days the number of multi-million-dollar settlements, because of police misconduct, and if you can stop one or two of those a year you’ve paid for the consent decree multiple times over.”

In conclusion, we ask what important trends these journalists will be monitoring in 2018. Doubek cites inspectors general. “It’s going to be interesting to see what the new legislative Inspector General in Springfield comes up with and comes out with. And certainly I think the situation with Forrest Claypool and Nicholas Schuler, the IG for CPS was a fascinating glimpse into just how powerful Inspectors General can be when they are properly staffed and budgeted and empowered. And so that will be something to watch and hopefully improve upon in 2018.”

You can listen to the audio of this show on Soundcloud here.

You can read the complete transcript of today’s show here: CN Transcript Jan 4 2018

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CN December 21 2017


Richard Boykin is the Pop-Tax Slayer.

The three-year incumbent County Commissioner from the first District (Maywood, Broadview, Bellwood, Oak Park and parts of Chicago’s west side) made a name for himself when he took a major lead in the effort to repeal the unpopular Cook County soda tax last month.

Now, the Commissioner’s back in the news for his trip to New York last week to meet with officials from the United Nations.

“It was a great meeting with the Assistant Secretary General,” he enthuses. “He gave us some great ideas. He also revealed that they are doing a youth global study on violence causes and cures, and that he would be interested in coming to Chicago to present on the findings once it’s complete in 2018, and so I plan to extend that invitation to him.”

Boykin resists the idea that he went to the UN to ask that peace-keeping troops be deployed in Chicago’s streets. He says he described a “quiet genocide” in the African American community that needs outside help to be stopped.

“The trip was never about bringing troops to our soil,” he explains. “Of course, most people understand in order to do that you have to have a vote in the Security Council, which the U.S. is a permanent member. There have never been foreign troops from the UN on the soil of America. And so I don’t think that this would have happened in Chicago. So it was all about peace building and not necessarily troops.”

But the issues he wanted to discuss are a painful, nagging conundrum for every Chicagoan. “Every institution of county government is implicated in gun violence,” he asserts. “Stroger Hospital, that great trauma center, most folks go to Stroger when they are shot. $55,000 just to stabilize somebody who is a gunshot wound victim. If the person is shot in the back and they have a spinal cord injury, you’re talking about millions of dollars in care, depending if the person is 13, 14. You’re talking about taking care of a person for the rest of their lives. That’s taxpayer money. It’s a different kind of tax, right? It’s a tax of violence that you’re paying.”

Boykin argues that any strategy that successfully reduces street violence will eventually result in significant tax savings. But he bristles at the suggestion that the $200 million Cook County didn’t get in taxes because of the Pop-tax repeal did any harm.

“We haven’t closed any clinics,” he assures us. “And quite frankly guess what? The same level of services that people enjoyed last year are the same level of services that they are getting right now. Now, I told you about criminal justice reform, and let me make another point, we didn’t lay-off one assistant state’s attorney. We didn’t lay-off one public defender. No sheriff’s police, frontline sheriff’s police, no correctional guards, no doctors, no nurses, none of them got laid off. Why? Because we wanted to make sure that we had the level of services for the most vulnerable and the most needy in our society.”

“Now let me tell you something, ” he adds. “We didn’t need the $200-million. They were going to use that money to add bloat to the government…We laid-off 321 people out of 22,000 people. Now, 321 out of 22,000. The budget director targeted middle-management positions, duplicative positions for those layoffs, and quite frankly, the citizens of Cook County desire that. They deserve it. We have to operate within our means.”

Can you tell me today, we challenged, that operations at the Cook County Health and Hospitals group, the hospitals and all the associated things, that their services will not be deteriorated as a result of the cuts?

“I can tell you that for a fact they will not be deteriorated'” he replied.

We can play this tape back a year from now, we asked?

“We can play this tape back a year from now,” he insisted.  “Let me tell you, there’s still yet a lot of waste at the health and hospital system. There’s still yet a lot of right-sizing that we must do at the health and hospital system.”

We conclude from this conversation, we tell Boykin, that he doesn’t seem too  crazy about the job that Toni Preckwinkle is doing.

“I’m not, He quickly responds. “I’m not, and you know, quite frankly I think there’s some steps that she’s made that have caused the County some heartache and some pain. She’s done some good, but not nearly enough. Not nearly as much as she could have. And quite frankly, on this last budget she really didn’t want to do it.”

“Let me tell you something, ” he continues. “Some people say that I don’t favor tax increases or tax revenue. I put forward a plan two years ago to raise the gas tax by 5-cents, but every penny of that would have gone into a youth jobs program to help our infrastructure, improve our infrastructure…President Preckwinkle didn’t get behind it. Guess what? It would have been a brilliant idea. We would have had $50-million in that fund right now. I mean we put forward some brilliant ideas that she has failed to get behind, because personally she doesn’t like me. And so that is the reason why her judgment is off and that’s the reason why she didn’t get the sugar tax, because quite frankly she let her own personal individual feelings get ahead of the real business.”

It’s not very often that somebody will just outright say that ‘she doesn’t like me” we observe. “I mean, it’s personal then?”

“Oh, it’s personal,” he responds. “It is, but it’s not personal for me.”

We ask for details. Did you do something? Do you have some history or something with her?

“I think the fact that I dared to stand up and speak truth to power,” he says.”I think the fact that I would bring my decision-making based on my district as opposed to falling in line like a rank and file Democrat. I’m not that. That’s not who I am.”

This morning the Tribune and ProPublica presented the latest in their series about the Assessor’s office, which details misdeeds from nepotism to illegal hiring and firing, and concludes that the office is being managed incompetently.  “We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a fair property tax system that people can be proud of,” Boykin asserts. “Our current assessment system has some flaws in it and some problems. Preckwinkle proposed a study. We don’t need another study, we need results.”

Boykin offers his support for Sheriff Tom Dart and Chief Judge Tim Evans, both of whom he says are doing their jobs well. But he’s more reserved the we ask him if Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who gently criticized Boykin for visiting the United Nations is “the right guy for the job”

“I like Superintendent Johnson,” he assures us. “I think he’s got to do more and he’s got to do it quickly, and if there are no changes, if things don’t change fast then I don’t know how much longer he will be there.”

Listen to the entire discussion in audio-only form (and conserve your phone battery)

And read the full transcript here: CN transcript Dec 21 2017

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CN December 14 2017 Kurth/Ewing

When a Republican gets beaten in Alabama by a pro-choice Democrat, when Garry McCarthy may launch a mayoral run, when the #MeToo movement is proclaimed an “era” by the New York Times, and when thousands of women are lining up with their petitions to run for public office, well, that’s the time to call in our pundit friends  Sylvia Ewing and Kitty Kurth. There are lots of opinions to share.

“In the end,” says Ewing, “I would love to see this kind of discussion that we’re having about gender and this MeToo gender moment, I would really like to see that extend to race. That is the other big gorilla in the room. And we have countless stories that are like little paper cuts where, oh, this story shows there is discrimination in housing. This study shows in employment. This study shows in education, and it never reaches this Metoo moment.” “And, she adds, “We keep working at it.”

Kurth notes a trending sentiment among progressive Democrats – that it’s time to acknowledge where the party is today, and to stop looking back. “Are we going to stop trying to convince the disillusioned white guys to come back to the party,” she asks, “Or are we going to invest time and money getting more black people to the polls who actually come to the polls and vote, and where are we going to put our priorities?”

As an example, Kurth cites an event she did last week with Emily’s List, whose website says,”We ignite change by getting pro-choice Democratic women elected to office.”

“Last year,” she proclaims, ” they had 900 women call them about running for office and getting help running for office, this year 23,000. And just amongst my own friends, like my friends on Facebook, friends that I knew from high school, all of a sudden women, now they realize like okay, I’ve got some time and I’m going to make it worthwhile.”

It’s an uplifting, positive message on Chicago Newsroom this week, and we hope you’ll find a few minutes to watch or listen.

You can listen to the show here on Soundcloud.

You can read a CN transcript dec 14 2017 Kurth Ewing



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CN December 14 2017 Juan Perez, Jr.

The Trib’s Jennifer Smith Richards and Juan Perez, Jr have written a powerful two-part series on the plight of 17 neighborhood high schools that have all but emptied out over the past few years. Their report, titled Chicago’s Shrinking Schools, can be found at the Chicago Tribune site. The series asks, “can these Chicago High Schools Survive?”

Falling victim to city-wide enrollment declines and vastly increased options for different, often smaller, high school experiences, there are serious questions as to whether Chicago still needs, or can afford, these large, old buildings. But there are also questions about whether small high schools can support diverse course offerings and robust after-school and extracurricular activities.

Juan Perez, Jr returns to Chicago Newsroom for this discussion about their series.

“For starters,’ he says, “the high schools that we examined, we decided to limit our examinations straight up to neighborhood high schools,  those that have assigned boundaries that are open to anybody who lives within them, and frankly anybody else from anywhere else in the City… That allowed us to just get a sense right away of okay, this has been a perennial question with us, how well are they attracting students who live within their neighborhood boundaries?”

And, he continues, “How many of the students who live within their neighborhood boundaries are leaving? Those are two questions, and then the big one that we always wanted to answer was,  when they leave where do they go?”

It’s very important to understand that the emptying out of these historic schools isn’t because of the overall drop in enrollment citywide. Here’s what Perez, Jr and Smith Richards wrote in their Tribune series:

“It might be easy to assume that these high schools are shrinking because the surrounding neighborhoods are hollowing out. That’s not true. There were roughly 2,700 high school students living in Gage Park High School’s attendance boundary on the southwest side last year. CPS says the school can comfortably educate 1,100. There’s 330 there now. Most of the other eligible students enrolled in 153 other CPS high schools.”

Parents and students are voting with their feet, or, more realistically, with their cars and the CTA. They found lots of families enduring 2-hour commutes each way to get to another high school but often he new school isn’t that far away.

What’s driving this exodus? It might be a perception of safety or a special program, Perez, Jr explains. Or maybe the students were outright recruited. “You see high schools going into neighborhoods and trying to establish relationships with feeder elementary schools in this kind of Hunger Games kind of environment for students.”

“I mean just look at the trend lines for overall population within CPS over the course of the past ten years and a drop of 40,000 students,” he continues.  “And then think about how during the same period you’ve constructed or opened or just made available, new options, new programs and new options for families to choose from. I mean do the math, right? What results there?

Dr. Janice Jackson, the newly appointed CEO of the school system who was until this week the academic head, has made it clear that wherever she can find opportunities to expand choice for parents she will, according to Perez, Jr. “But again,” he wonders, “The big question is what do you do? There are consequences to this. And there are consequences that tend to affect black and brown children more than they do other children within the City of Chicago.”

Juan Perez, Jr tells us that CPS doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive plan for either saving or disposing of these neighborhood high schools, which range from Fenger on the far south side to Kelvyn Park on the northwest side.  He calls these schools “almost a spiritual embodiment of the idea that traditional neighborhood high school holds as, well, as it’s like your church, it’s like your bank, it’s like the grocery store. It’s an anchor of the neighborhood. At least that’s how it was traditionally conceivedHollowed out neighborhood high schools. It’s part of the social fabric and glue that brings it together. And yet, in the case of these 17 buildings we found that that concept has been completely turned around on its head.”

Of course, there is a plan – publicly announced – to close four high schools, all in the Englewood area, and replace hem with a new, $85 million high school to replace the soon-to-be demolished Robeson High. But the plan is under fire from local residents because the new school will open a least a year after the other schools close, with no clear plan for what to do with the displaced students during the construction period.

Added to that, the new CPS comprehensive application process rolls out this year for every student moving into high school. It will be what Perez, Jr calls  “a centralized repository to handle the dizzying array of applications that you had for selectives or whatever else. If you still want to attend your neighborhood school you will still be able to attend your neighborhood school, but I’m curious to see how those buildings will fare in all of this.”

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CN December 7 2017

Mayor Daley, excited by the prospects his 2016 Chicago Olympics only nine years away, wanted to make sure there were no city workers on strike during the festivities. So in 2007 he forged ten-year contracts with what amounted to 90% of the City’s workforce. In fact, those contracts became pretty much the only legacy of the 2016 Olympics, and the Emanuel administration now finds itself in the middle of complex negotiations with scores of unions, large and small.

On May 17, Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office published a report that audited  each of the current collective bargaining agreements. The report pointed out places where outdated contractual provisions cost the city millions of dollars each year, and it called on the City’s negotiators to begin rolling back some of the most costly ones.

We begin with a highly-visible example, the Motor Truck Driver.  In many cases, these workers drive trucks and vehicles that require special licensing and cannot be driven by  regular citizens. But over the years the MTD’s responsibilities have shifted contractually.

“It’s not just that they are driving vehicles that other people can’t drive,” Ferguson explains. “They are driving regular vehicles that other people can drive, and that’s really where the essence of the savings identification came into play. There is a concept called traditional work that is embedded in each one of these trade’s contracts.”

“And traditional work says only these workers represented by this Union can do that work,” he continues. “So in the context of the motor truck drivers, and we don’t want to pick on the Teamsters, but it’s a low-hanging fruit situation, the scenario that we came across was a pick-up truck, a City driver, a teamster, sitting in the truck and reading the newspaper while a painter is painting a curb yellow, fire hydrant red, freshening up the paint. And we all see things like that every day. And what we see is a worker loafing, right?”

“And what we found was that Motor Truck Driver, that driver was doing exactly what he was supposed to do. He’s not allowed to get out of the truck and help the painter. The painter is not allowed to drive himself to the worksite. It’s enshrined in the contract in the notion of “traditional work”. Only members of the Painter’s Union can paint. Only members of the Teamsters can do the driving.”

Ferguson says his office compared this situation with the way the private sector handles the exact same scenario when the City hires private contractors for overflow situations. “And that’s where we saw an electrician, a painter could drive himself to a site and then do the work,” he explains. And this is no small financial matter.

“Two hundred motor truck drivers that the City doesn’t need to employ,” he asserts, “at a cost now of over $100,000 a year. Each. Meaning 20 to $25-million a year, a ten-year contract. Now you’re talking a quarter of a billion dollars, and that Olympics, the ten-year contracts we said that they exist nowhere else. They shouldn’t exist. It should be four-year cycles. The example that I like to give is that at the point in time that that contract all 37 of those trades contracts were approved by the City Council as ordinances in December of 2007, I-Phones didn’t exist. And so if you think about how much the world has changed, how much technology has changed, how much the way that we deliver services has changed over the course of ten years it’s extraordinary. We’ve tied our hands managerially to be able to innovate in the ways that allow us to deliver more for less.

And he concludes, “We’re in the fix that we are with our Union contracts because of simply an accretion of give-aways over time. Why? Because each round of negotiations starts from the existing contract and then we go from there. It’s costly to claw all this stuff back.”

And he draws a comparison between public and private-sector union contracts. “It looks to me like our public-sector unions conduct themselves in ways that private sector unions conduct themselves in this regard. The pot of money that’s available in the private sector – those are profits, and the objective is to get as much for the workers, your union members as you can, the greatest amount of profit, otherwise profit taking of the corporation.”

“We do a similar thing in the public sector,” he adds. “What seems to be missing is the public good, the public interest, because those aren’t profits. That’s taxpayer money. And so that we want more. If you want something from us you pay for it. What’s missing is actually the fiduciary duty that’s written into the City’s ethics ordinance that every worker has to the public, that’s not reflected in the outcomes of our Collective Bargaining Agreements. It’s just simply profit-taking behavior with taxpayer money and there needs to be some leavening of the public’s interests one, and some leavening of the notion that wherever the contract lands it should reflect the morality of the City. It should reflect good public policy and it should be sustainable. And that is sort of the big generational shift that we need to affect in this moment.”

One of the biggest drivers of budget excesses is the high level of compensatory time and overtime that’s accrued in some departments. Ferguson’s proud of the fact that his audits and reports help the City Council understand things in some very different ways.

“Inspectors General typically, their primary customer is the legislative branch engaging in active legislative oversight,” he begins. “And the Collective Bargaining Agreement Report was a moment where a lot of eyes were opened in the City Council, because here was this readily consumable product that allowed them to say, “Hey, wait a second. What’s going on here?”

“And at the time of our report there was about a $250-million sort of reserve obligation that the City had for comp time payouts, because a number of these Union contracts, the City is not in a position to limit the accretion, or the accumulation of comp time. And so it just builds and builds and builds, and it doesn’t get paid out on the basis of what your salary or wage was at the moment that you earned it. It gets paid out on the basis of the salary or the wage that you’re collecting when it gets paid out.”

But for many City workers, according to Ferguson, there are limits. “First of all, comp time needs to be approved and justified by the program managers and department heads, and there’s a limit on how much can accrue,” he explains. But when Ferguson released his report on police overtime a couple of months ago, it had immediate impact. “In the police realm there is no limit, and there really is no check on what it is that we’re actually doing there. You mentioned the City Council, it wasn’t just the Collective Bargaining Agreement Report, it was the CPD Overtime Report, where the scales fell off of the eyes and it was like wait a minute, what is going on here.”

“So, with respect to police overtime,” he tells us, “the issue there was controls, and sort of the integrity of the approval system. What we found there were tens of millions of dollars of either not properly approved, approved by peers rather than supervisors, reciprocal approvals, and that’s a pure administrative control issue, one. Two, 99% of the overtime that we looked at over a 2½-year period was missing justification or reason codes. So no one can look at exactly why, and when you see how much this actually costs us on an annual basis in Chicago the estimate is $170-million this year, approximately twice what was actually appropriated in the 2017 budget. It’s real money and it’s not just about money though; it’s about effective use of taxpayer resources, which if we tightened up those controls, it would probably mean that we have significant money sitting in our budget right now to pay for more officers to the extent that we need them. To pay for the reforms of the Police Department, which everyone is sort of fearing right now.

In conclusion, Ferguson says the job has exposed him to a certain truth about his adopted city. It seems we have a teensy love affair with Chicago’s crooked heritage. “We’re a little bit challenged culturally in our City in that we seem at some level in love with our narrative of corruption. It’s part of our history” he laments. “I didn’t grow up in Chicago, I grew up in Boston. Old machine-based northeast cities. The same sort of thing everywhere. We in Chicago, and I’ve been here for far more than half my life now and I’m no longer a young man, we love our narrative in ways that other cities don’t love that narrative, and that’s a distinguishing factor.”

So what stimulates a person to do this kind of work, that puts you at odds with big powerful people?  “It’s sort of a combination of maybe faulty genetic switches, and to some degree socialization. And for me it was a little bit of a midlife crisis and I couldn’t afford a red sportscar.”





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CN November 16 2017


Mayor Harold Washington died in office thirty years ago this Thanksgiving. It was November 25, 1987, and for those of us who knew him in some way we’ll always associate the day before Thanksgiving with his sudden death while seated at his desk at City Hall.

We called a group of Harold Washington veterans to our table this week to share some memories and look forward a little. We summoned  a lifelong friend and City Hall insider; a member of the City Council opposition; an Alderman elected to the Council during a special election that changed the council’s composition to give Washington the majority, and a journalist who covered Washington for local and national audiences.

Jacky Grimshaw became Washington’s director of Intergovernmental Affairs. She had known Washington most of her life, growing up in the 3rd Ward and attending church and political functions with him for years. “And so the professional relationship really began when he was running for the Illinois State Senate,” she tells us. “So from that election to the 1987 Mayoral Election I did the precinct coordination for every one of Harold Washington’s campaigns.”

Patrick O’Connor joined the City Council in 1983, the same year Washington was elected. But he was, in a way, an accidental Alderman. Ivan Rittenberg, the incumbent, was in the Jane Byrne camp. He was for Richard M. Daley. He ran, he tells us, mainly to “tie up” the Byrne forces so they’d have to spend time defending the Ward and they couldn’t go elsewhere to help Byrne.

Throughout the primary, all the attention was on Byrne and Daley. Little attention was paid to the black candidate despite his huge voter registration drive.  In the end, O’Connor found himself in a runoff with the incumbent Alderman and he won in the April General election. Washington won the primary, of course, but he then found himself in vicious general election with a Republican who ran a racially-tinged campaign. O’Connor tells us that, ironically, Harold Washington helped him win the Ward.

“I think that the folks that were working for the incumbent alderman made a significant mistake,” he explains, “because they jumped into the mayoral thinking that that was also going to sweep them in and actually I think what it did is that as the race took on a tone and a tenor it was really quite ugly in a lot of ways. People began to look and say, “I don’t want to be part of that.”

In the Council, O’Connor joined the opposition, but says he kept an open mind when it came to working with the Mayor on Ward issues. “While we were divided in terms of ultimate votes we tended to work together on things that we thought were important,” he tells us. “I voted for every one of Harold’s budgets, so you can say that I was part of the opposition getting to a budget, but when a budget passed I voted for those budgets. Now, that’s not to say that Harold and his administration didn’t work hard to get those votes, and it’s not to say that I didn’t extract everything I could from them in order to vote for.”

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Rahm Emanuel’s opponent in the most recent Mayoral race, came into the Council after a special election ordered by a federal court. A coalition of community leaders had challenged the 1981 Ward re-map, arguing that it diminished black and Hispanic representation in at least seven wards. After months of negotiation, Judge Charles Norgle approved a new Ward map and ordered the 1986 special election. The election changed the racial makeup of the Council, probably forever, and awarded Washington a tied Council, 25-25. But the Mayor’s tie-breaking vote gave him control for the first time.

“It was a fantastic experience,” recalls Garcia. “It was finally having an opportunity to govern more normally, and to finally enable the Mayor to get a grasp on the reins of government in Chicago and make the appointments to boards and commissions, and finally have the engine humming along and moving Chicago forward, so it was a great time.”

Washington, however, would live only a little more than a year after the victory.

Cheryl Corley, now a Chicago and Midwest correspondent for NPR, was at the time WBEZ’s City Hall reporter. She recalls that, in addition to Washington’s challenges in the City Council, he also faced constant challenges among his friends.

“He also had to coalesce people in the black community, because there was a lot of separation there as well,” Corley says. “And so he was pretty adept at being able to do that, because you have black nationalists who supported him and who were very instrumental in getting things happening, and black religious leaders and black politicians as well. So it was kind of the combination of a lot of folks from the civil rights movement, the nationalist movement and regular electoral politics all coming together in this one guy who was able to make that happen.”

Convincing Harold Washington to run wasn’t easy, according to Grimshaw.

“Harold would tell me all the time that he was congressman for life,” she remembers. “He knew that the first congressional district would elect him. That he just had to make sure he just stayed true to his principles and the promises he made and he would never have to worry. So when all the drafting was going on – who is going to be the black candidate, and they finally said, “Harold,” and Harold kept saying no. And I would talk to him on a regular basis and he said, “No, I don’t want to do that.”

He did eventually agree to meet with the organizers, but he laid out some demands including cash commitments and voter registration.

“And of course the folks were intent, so they got the black business folks together. They committed $250,000 I think was the amount of money. The other thing was that he wanted 50,000 new registrants. Well, it ended up being more like 200,000 registrants,” concludes Grimshaw.

Once in office,Harold Washington liked to say “I’m gonna be your mayor for the next 20 years.” We ask our guests to speculate. If Washington had been a twenty-year Mayor, what might he have accomplished? How would Chicago be different if Washington, rather than Richard M. Daley, had been mayor through the 90’s and into the oughts?

Corley says by the time of his death even communities that didn’t vote for him and had opposed him were beginning to recognize his desire for equity. A recognition, she says, “that he is responsive, and that he wants to bring a City that has been separate and divided for such a long time together and find common ground…But Harold also reaches out to groups that had been largely invisible, that didn’t have political clout like the LGBTQ community, the Arab community, the Muslim community.”


“I think there would have been a greater emphasis on getting at the concentration of poverty in Chicago, especially on the west and south sides,” she continues. “I think he would have been a much stronger spokesperson on the question of replacing the demolished housing, public housing that occurred in Chicago, and lastly, on the question of crime and the violence that those conditions have bred in Chicago, he was keenly aware of problems in the Police Department as it relates to police brutality and violations that occurred historically in certain parts of the City. So I think that would have been addressed in a different manner, because remember Harold Washington broke with the regular Democratic organization over the issue of police abuse, police brutality in the black community. So the consciousness of those daily realities of people probably would have led to different strategies being deployed.”

“I think he was one of the first Mayors to basically say, “I’m going to be responsible for the education of our children,” and that’s something that I think has carried through the Mayors currently,” O’Connor tells us. “I mean I don’t know a city that’s more invested in the public education than the City of Chicago right now. But I will say this, Chicago is a better City today for having had Harold Washington become the Mayor. I don’t think that there is any doubt that that’s true.”

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CN Nov 9 2017 Bettina Chang and Darryl Holliday


Rest in peace, DNAInfo Chicago.

Chicago without the late, great DNAinfo just doesn’t seem the same.

They enterprised unexpected neighborhood stories that nobody else in this town was covering.  They reported on fun happenings like bar and restaurant openings. And let’s not forget, they were no slouches at investigative reporting either. Stories like this one, for example: Alderman Profited Off the 606- But That Doesn’t Mean He Wants You To …

As we info-junkies mourn the loss of that incessant newsfeed from our favorite neighborhoods, we talk with two former DNAinfo staffers who went on to create their own local news operation on the south side.

Bettina Chang and Darryl Holliday are co-founders of the City Bureau. It doesn’t have its own billionaire, so there aren’t as many paid staff and it doesn’t generate as much content as DNA did. But its non-profit mix of memberships, donations and philanthropy has generated  a loyal and sustainable, if smaller, economic base.

“They brought me on to do breaking news,” Chang remembers, “to be a breaking news editor, so I worked 2 to 10 at night, and I was there as sort of the backstop on a lot of the stories that were left over from the day before getting them ready for the next morning. And because of that I was so lucky to be able to interact with a huge variety of the reporters. Most of the reporters there reported specifically to one editor, except for at night when it was just me in the office by myself hanging out with the cleaning lady.”

“I began at DNAinfo in 2012,” saysHolliday. “I was among the first batch of reporters. Actually before it even launched we were working on the murder timeline, which was the first big project designed to cover directly and intentionally every homicide in the City. So I began my career in journalism in that sort of City News Bureau where I was at the morgue every night, at 3 in the morning.”

When Chang and Holliday founded City Bureau, they insisted on a key difference. It was their devotion to training reporters and “documenters” from their own community.

“We could be bigger with more and better funding,” Holliday explains, “but we’re really focused on getting people, the everyday person to care about journalism and to make it so we don’t have to rely on foundations or the Joe Ricketts of the world and we can be accountable to you or to you, to all of us, and we build the media.”

“We run three year-around programs,” he adds. “One is the reporting fellowship where we bring what we call emerging journalists together with more experienced reporters. They work collaboratively, and that content gets produced across various media outlets locally and nationally. Our public newsroom, we open up our physical newsroom space in Woodlawn, once a week Thursdays from 6 to 8 and bring in community members, activists, journalists, academics, to talk about what is new and interesting in their work and their lives and share that, hands-on skill-sharing. Those conversations they are I think cathartic for some people. Some people are not used to having journalists come and say, “Really, what do you want to talk about? What do we need?…So that’s every single week, consistent. And the last program is our documenters program where we pay and train people, anyone to go out and document public meetings, so think the Chicago Police Board and City Council. We have a live feed sometimes. We have them fill out meeting templates so we know who is there, what were they talking about, what are the issues that were raised.”

Chang says she’s been heartened by the community repose in these first two years.

“You know it’s always a guided workshop,” she tells us. “We bring in somebody to lead it, and you can come based on your interest. We had one a while ago about using videogames to tell stories, and that tended to attract more people who are interested in games. Or, we had Tanika Johnson, a photographer from Englewood to talk about what does it mean to tell the story of your neighborhood. And so we got a lot of people who are interested in that issue. And so it’s very cross-generational. We had people who are 16 up to about 80 coming in.”

Now in its third year, and with the stunning demise of DNA, City Bureau’s founding principles and funding models will be put to an even more stringent test.

“If you can make the case right,” Holliday insists, “like what is the value proposition? I mean when you see DNA disappear, I think venues say, “Whoa, this can just go away? How do we make it so it can’t?”

This young organization is convinced that it can find and train young journalists and build a community-level news shop that will endure.

You can listen to this program on SoundCloud here.

And you can read full transcript of the discussion here:CN transcript Nov 9 2017 Chang and Holliday


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