Let’s Change Our Schools

 

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The Chicago Public Schools system is broken. Not beyond repair, just broken.

Almost every CPS graduate I’ve talked to said high school did not prepare them for the real world.  The students I coach swimming and water polo felt the same way. My friends who are now in law school, medical school and graduate programs also agreed. Countless parents said their kids are simply not learning enough. A couple of CPS employees shared the same feeling. And guess what? CPS just might have failed me too.

A quick Google search of “Chicago public schools issues” leads to many articles about angry parents and angry teachers. Should we blame Rahm? Or how about the Teachers Union? How about those politicians in Springfield? Gangs? Sugary drinks? Polar vortex?

Maybe it’s us. Yes, you and me. Maybe we, as a city, lost touch of the power of education. We’re all quick to complain about the huge percentage of property taxes that goes to CPS – but who wants to grow old in a city of uneducated adults? Chicagoans are infamous for being proficient finger-pointers. I challenge each and every one of us, including myself, to point the finger the other way – at ourselves. I firmly believe that if we all held ourselves accountable to our city’s youth, great things can be accomplished.

But change is a weird thing. Most people don’t like change. Almost all of our local politicians are opposed to change; it’s “different”. People are scared of change. But the funny thing is that change happens all the time without people even knowing (well, Ventra was obvious). Why? It’s because the most positive change starts small, hyper-local. We might not have the frequent flyer miles to go to Washington. We might not have the political connections to convince Springfield. And we might not have City Council members on speed dial. But we have two very important things: our schools and our voice. And until Rahm decides to shut down more schools, they can’t take either from us. Change starts with every child, in every neighborhood, in every school.

I urge everyone to join me on this journey of change; I can’t do it alone and I need your help. One person can build a house, but together we can build a city. Please support my candidacy for Local School Council of Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, my alma mater. I will focus on making it safer, better utilizing the budget and developing a common sense School Improvement Plan.

“Change will not come if we wait on some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” –Barack Obama

Fraud, Waste & Abusing Our Public School Children

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Persepolis 2013

Just the other day I was walking downtown on south Clark Street when I passed by the Chicago Public Schools headquarters. The front of the building features an impressive colonnade that evokes the grandeur of the cradle of western civilization, ancient Greece. You can find Greek influences everywhere in Chicago’s architecture. They gave us democracy, the Socratic method, and a culture where every citizen was expected to contribute something to the state. Unfortunately in so many respects we fall woefully short of the Greek.

Take the Chicago Public Schools building itself. With the district drowning in red ink and schools being shuttered left and right (50 to be exact), does the CPS really need a dozen-story skyscraper on prime downtown real estate for its headquarters? There have to be hundreds of buildings scattered throughout the city with just as much office space that would probably cost a whole lot less. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for a half-million square foot space just so CPS officers can have a shorter commute and a nice view? Think about it: The money saved by switching to a more modest building might be enough to make the difference in some child’s life.

That got me thinking about other ways we can prevent waste, fraud and abuse in our schools. Every year the Office of the Inspector General releases a report of misconduct in the system. In January of 2013 the document was 58 pages long and cataloged over 100 cases, and that barely scratches the surface. Inspector Jim Sullivan says that his staff simply doesn’t have the resources to cover all of the complaints that come in – which have doubled in just the last five years.

Some of the complaints are petty, such as employees using district computers for porn and dating sites, and some should outrage decent Chicagoans everywhere and have us calling for a public tar and feathering of the responsible parties. The free lunch program is the most frequently abused perk by schools. Principals regularly inflate attendance numbers in order to keep funding levels at their schools up. Far more galling are the CPS employees earning over $100,000 annually who enrolled their children.

The worst waste to be found in the report details some $1.13 million improperly collected benefits for teachers. That may sound like a drop in the bucket for a system with a five billion dollar budget, but consider this: it costs about $13,000 to educate the average Chicago public school student. By that measure, those improper benefits could have paid for about 87 children to attend school for the entire year.

Every public institution of this size is going to have some level of fraud and mismanagement, that’s a given. Those who use reports like this to call for gutting funding for public schools are either disingenuous or willfully calloused to the needs of inner city communities. However, in a district where 50 schools were just closed, we have to do better than this.

Public resources are our most precious commodity in this economy. Investing in education should be a no-brainer, but the budget hawks in Springfield will use every instance of fraud to cut funding for Chicago schools. Making sure that the money gets where it’s supposed too is about more than just cracking down on people who abuse the system, it’s about preserving the next generation of minds in a city that’s desperately going to need them. 

Ventra latest Villain for CTA commuters

ImageBack when the el was first constructed CTA riders could get to anywhere in the city for just a nickel. As recently as 1994 the cost of a ride was a dollar, plus 25 cents for a transfer.

Time and new technology have wrought a lot of changes for Chicagoans who use public transportation, but one tradition that never seems to go away is discrimination. The first women to be hired for rapid transit service did not come until August of 1974. Service cuts disproportionately affect poor and underserved communities, layoffs hit middle class CTA workers while incompetent upper levels of management remain untouchable.

The latest CTA screw-job for poor and middle class Chicagoans is the Ventra system.

Ventra is the brainchild of First Data, an Atlanta-based payment processing company that can boast of an F rating with the Better Business Bureau. The company is currently under investigation for a possible class action lawsuit for billing merchants after the end of a lease, among other complaints. According to the website Consumer Affairs, the company has a 1.1 rating out of a possible five stars. Let’s all be sure to thank Mayor Emmanuel in 2015 for yet another public/private partnership that will give us fits for years down the road.

CTA commuters got their first taste of the customer service to come when many reported having trouble activating their cards online. Some have claimed to be put on hold for as long as 34 minutes before giving up.

The most common problem people have experienced with Ventra is the double charge. If you carry your Ventra card in your wallet and wave it over the turnstile like a Chicago Card, there’s a chance that your debit card will also be charged, since the system picks up on them as well. I’ve already lost nine dollars to the double dip. You can avoid this by keeping the Ventra card out of your wallet. Carrying the card separately is a minor inconvenience, but it seems like an easily avoided oversight considering the half-billion dollar investment that our taxpayers are making.

Worst of all Ventra represents a tax on poor riders who don’t have access to the internet or debit cards for reloading. The cost of a single ride for those who opt out has gone from $2.25 to $3.

One day Ventra will go the way of the old CTA token and the nickel and be replaced by a sleeker, even more high-tech payment method. Hopefully the next system will prove more responsive for customers and more mindful of the most vulnerable among us.

All in the Family

Ex-Ald. Dick Mell. DNAinfo

Ex-Ald. Dick Mell. DNAinfo

Family political dynasties are nothing new. Throughout history you’ll find examples of kingdoms and principalities passed down from one generation to the next. Chicago has been no exception to the rule. From the Pritzkers and the Burkes, to the Madigans and the Daleys, trading on a name can get you far in this town. The list goes on; the Harrisons, the Crowns, the Cullertons, and the Strogers have worked tirelessly to keep public offices and privilege all in the family.

Even in our era of liberal democracy there are still more than a few family kingmakers floating around.

Take Alderman Richard Mell for example. For thirty seven years he served on the Chicago city council, wheeling and dealing like an old time party boss in the robber baron era. As part of the Vrdolyak 29 during the racially charged council wars of the 1980s, Mell and his gang tied down city business into a virtual gridlock, doing anything and everything in their power to make Mayor Harold Washington a non-entity. When Washington died shortly after his re-election in 1987, Mell tried to maneuver himself onto the fifth floor by making dirty promises to other council members, including control of the Chicago Park District.

The kind of nepotism and corruption that Dick Mell represents has taken its toll on the city. A report released by the University of Illinois Chicago in 2012 indicated that since 1976 there have been more than 1500 public corruption convictions in Chicago, costing taxpayers an estimated $500 million a year. Four out of our last seven governors have gone to federal prison, including Mell’s unfortunate son in law Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was caught on tape trying to sell a United States Senate seat.

The culture seems so deeply ingrained that hardly any eyebrows were raised earlier this year when Dick Mell announced his retirement and Mayor Emanuel hand-picked his daughter Deborah to replace him.

To be fair, Deb Mell seems to be cut from a different cloth than her father Dick. During her time in the Illinois House of Representatives she was an active and sincere advocate on behalf of gay rights, and she is highly qualified, but one can hardly imagine that part of her resume mattered as much as her last name when Emanuel picked her for the job.

In Emanuel’s Chicago family connections still outweigh merit and serve as a golden ticket.

Until the 1980’s the ability to appoint replacements to the city council lied with Chicago’s voters. It’s past time that power was returned to the people. While it would not clean out the decades of accumulated filth in the city, it would be a solid start.

Guest Speaker on TheShow1045

Topic: Criminal Cases of Trayvon Martin, Marissa Alexander, Jordan Davis and Howard Morgan

Safe Passage Unsustainable

When the board of education voted to close 47 elementary schools last year in the face of a massive $1 billion budget deficit, some 13,000 students were forced to commute to a different school, often times across gang lines. In order to address that risk the city doubled its Safe Passage program by hiring 600 new workers to escort those affected by the cuts.

Monday marked the first day of the school year and the newly expanded program. On top of the 600 Safe Passage walkers, a combination of police, firefighters and volunteers showed up to help. The idea is to use heavy community policing along the most dangerous routes where gang violence is most likely to occur.

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Thus far, the initiative has garnered mostly positive reviews from parents. Kenyatta Laye, mother to a third grader at Tilton said, “I think they’re doing a good job… I still walk him myself. I won’t let him walk alone because of the neighborhood.”

Others were more skeptical, including mother Annie Stoval, who commented that “it’s (Safe Passage) just a show and tell right now. Five, six weeks down the road let’s see what’s going to happen.” Alderman Scott Waguespack of the 32nd ward warned on Twitter the costs of maintaining the campaign over time will make it untenable: “A lot of Streets and Sanitation supervisors and district personnel were being stationed at a lot of the Safe Passages, so I don’t know how long they can sustain that.”

The 600 hires will be paid $10 an hour, and the total bill is estimated to run north of $15 million for the length of the school year.

Protecting our public school kids must be a priority, but as Waguespack points out, the program as currently constituted is unsustainable. There simply is neither the will nor the resources to uphold the effort. When the weather turns cold, we can expect many of the volunteers to evaporate, and the city workers who made a show for the first week have to go back to their posts.

The fact that we need a program like Safe Passage represents a greater failure. No one can guard these passages 24-7 and CPS students must eventually return to living in a veritable war zone. Until the root causes of gang violence are addressed in poor west-side neighborhoods, the shootings will continue, no matter how many crossing guards we hire.

However, the enthusiasm that parents, volunteers and neighbors in these communities have demonstrated is very encouraging. That energy has to be harnessed towards achieving a true long-term solution.

Cutting City Council in Half: Symbolic Cut

The idea to slash the size of Chicago’s city council in half was first floated by then mayor-elect and current undisputed protector of the realm Rahm Emanuel. Recently though aldermen Brendan Reilly and Ameya Pawar of the 42nd and 47th wards brought the proposal back to life.

In these times of dwindling resources it’s an all-too familiar call to do less with more, for if New York City can survive with 51 aldermen surely our quaint little cow town can thrive with half as many. It seems like common sense. After all the numbers do not lie, Chicago faces a budget shortfall by some $338 million in 2014 and that number will triple the next year due to pension liabilities. Difficult choices have to be made.

However, cutting the number of aldermen would not only represent an insignificant savings in the face of the larger shortfall, but services for already underserved communities would inevitably decline. Alderman O’Connor of the 40th ward recognizes the danger: “the delivery of services would be considerably changed. You would essentially be doubling the geographic area each alderman represents and, to the extent that we try to police and bring services to our wards, it would hamper our efforts.”

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Even Mayor Emanuel admits that the cuts represent “more symbolic value than actual.” Well then, as long as we are making symbolic cuts, I’m certain the Mayor wouldn’t mind volunteering to halve his own annual salary of $216,000.

Are Aldermen Brenan Reilly and Ameya Pawar willing to let their own wards be swallowed up and surrender their positions? Or how about a portion of the estimated 2,400 public employees who earn more than six figures a year that don’t represent the concerns of every day Chicagoans on the city council?

Let’s be perfectly lucid about this. Cutting the city council is a transparent power play by the Mayor’s office, and a ludicrous one to boot considering how little resistance Emanuel already encounters whenever he really wants something.

Chicagoans understand that painful sacrifices will have to be made to meet the city’s fiduciary obligations. But to stomach that we will need to make an inventory of our priorities.

So let’s take stock. In the last year we shuttered 50 public schools and gave $33 million for a new basketball stadium to a rich private university whose team hasn’t won eight conference games in the last five seasons and yet we’re supposed to accept half our current representation in the city council for the sake of austerity?

Wait, sorry. As the mayor said, it would only be a symbolic cut.