Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Our suffering schools

I had an engagement yesterday at Sumner-Kipp school deep inside the West Side. The school was locked like a fortress and it took me several minutes to get in.

Heavy doors, painted a spartan brown to cover graffiti, were shut up against a desolate playground. Empty lots dotted the streets between dilapidated homes and long-shuttered factories. Our post-industrial environment.

When I finally got in, I looked around the dimly lit basement for the person I was supposed to meet. Black children were filling the halls. They didn't seem unhappy to be there, but I did not sense much joy and light as I do when I walk the halls of Newberry, Lincoln, Lab, Latin. The Sumner teachers looked tired and sullen.

One white teacher was particularly nasty. She was desperately trying to push her kids into a single-file line. She bellowed to them, "Didn't I tell you what I would do to you if you didn't get in line?!" Her face bore the cruelty of oppression and furrowed lines of exhaustion - Thoreau's "confirmed resignation," it seemed to me. Then she turned to me. I asked where I could find Ms. W--'s room.

"She's upstairs," she answered in a voice that sounded at once annoyed, desperate, helpless. "That's a different school. We were moved from there and we don't go up there." (Kipp-Ascend is a charter school that occupies the upstairs rooms.) She turned back to corraling her children.

In the meantime, we have some of the most beautiful schools in the city here in Lincoln Park. Certainly, we pay higher taxes here, and the unspoken statement is that we deserve much better public schools because of it. But of course that is suburban thinking, so we don't say it.

Sumner does not lure top teachers and administrators, and its test scores are hovering around the 50th percentile. Sumner is not even one of the worst schools. And I've seen some triumphs in the many schools I've visited and worked in over the years. But I am not afraid to say to Lincoln Parkers that there are great disparities here and we of all people should be taking notice, taking action. This is a citywide responsibility.

Sumner report card
Lincoln report card

View all school report cards and other data here

Monday, October 23, 2006

Board of Elections database vulnerability

The Board of Elections will not be thanking me for forcing them to correct their error, nor will they be apologizing to Chicagoans for this oversight. In fact, Langdon Neal, chairman of the Board of Election Commissioners, instead has publicly accused me of breaking the law. He did this at the Board of Election meeting Tuesday, knowing I wasn't in the room to defend myself. He did add that they wouldn't be pressing charges, thank goodness. Let no good deed go unpunished, and be sure to cover your behind with a well-paid publicist and a part-time appointed commissioner who happens to be a high-powered zoning lawyer.

The worst part about this is that the Tribune whitewashed the event to bail out the Board of Elections. Metro editor Hanke Gratteau burned with jealousy at seeing the Sun-Times was getting an exclusive story. I asked her writer to be patient and instead Gratteau decided she would punish us, coming out with a grossly imbalanced story that made the Board of Elections look practically heroic. Even in the next day's followup story her anger was clear. What had been a national scandal the day before, she managed to reduce to a footnote at the bottom of a local story. Ahh, the power of the press.

Her story quoted Tom Leach: "We don't have any evidence that there was any [identity] theft." Our side was not invited to rebut that. In fact, to this day Leach has no idea whether there was any theft of identities. He can't know, because their logs couldn't possibly go back more than a few weeks, while the hole has been in existence for at least six years. But the Tribune's Hanke Gratteau decided that the statement was important enough, authoritative enough, and conclusive enough, to run as a pullquote.

The story told readers that Leach said, "On Friday, [Peter] finally called and we asked him to come in" (emphasis mine). I told the Tribune that I demonstrated the problem in August to Al Chase, that I sat down at his desk and showed it to him, and that Rachel Goodstein was in the room and saw me do it. But the Tribune refused to publish that, instead claiming that I "declined to further discuss the matter." They were so jealous of the Sun-Times that they decided lying was a good service for their readers.

I come from three generations of professional journalists. Many of my writer friends find today's crop of career editors at the large dailies an embarrassment to the profession. Though they proudly wear the mantle of journalistic integrity, it is made out of tissue. They are craven and jealous and I can say that for this story Hanke Gratteau did not follow the code of ethics prescribed by the Society of Professional Journalists. They will probably find another excuse to endorse someone else for alderman, but be sure Hanke Gratteau's jealous rivalry with the Sun-Times may be a strong contributor. She simply doesn't like me and never has.

Read my statement on the Board of Elections database vulnerability.
Read the Sun-Times story.
Read the Tribune story.
Go to Illinois Ballot Integrity Project Web site.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hypocrisies of the new Lincoln Avenue tax hike

The Lincoln Avenue tax commission (SSA) wants to spend ill-gained residential tax dollars on the very same aesthetic amenities that even experts are saying don't bring commercial economic improvement (see MCIC study). They want those expensive hanging flower baskets on the street light poles. Eace priced at about $500 annually to maintain, they'll need about 100 of them ($50,000). "We're getting a discount on them," they told me. These were the the first items that people raised a big stink about at the beginning of this process, and now it's a priority for this commission. "Your concerns are all water under the bridge," they tell me. Lincoln Avenue, it's your money they're being so cavalier about.

I've been trying to persuade them that a more immediate and justifiable need is to fix the half-dozen smashed store windows on the 2200 block of Lincoln Avenue. Aslam Virani, of the Lincoln Mini-Mart at 2228 N. Lincoln, simply does not have the money to fix his window and replace the neon. Rioting drunken crowds on that block are one reason this tax was proposed. While I strongly disagree that residents should be paying a majority of this chamber of commerce tax, they now have a bank account that has $130,000 of your money. They can't allocate a measly few hundred dollars to help Mr. Virani with a real problem, yet they're sitting around seriously mulling a $50,000 annual disbursement for flowerpots that many of us have already told them we don't want. It's going to cost each and every homeowner, renter, and small business on Lincoln Avenue between $100 and $200 a year.

"If you think the neighbors want Mr. Virani's window fixed, why not ask each of them to chip in a few bucks apiece?" That's what they told me, in the same patronizing tone they used when I last appeared before them. But then, why doesn't the commission take up a collection for the planters? Why don't they ring every doorbell in the neighborhood and ask each resident and small business for $150 to pay for this year's planters? Why don't they do that? Because surreptitiously hiking our taxes was much easier.

Last night, I attended the Wicker Park-Bucktown SSA commissioner meeting. That commission voted to reimburse the chamber of commerce only half of the $57,000 it spent in researching their SSA. Commissioners say they are somewhat baffled by the high price tag and never authorized the work; they've called for an investigation into the remaining amount. They are also concerned that the data was inaccurate.

Last month, the same reimbursement proposition was unanimously rubber-stamped for approval by our Lincoln Avenue commission. The very same consultant had done very similar work for the Wicker SSA as for ours, and the commission knew it. As a result, the chamber, the aldermen, and the Department of Planning and Development pushed through a pricey new property and rental tax that to this day few on the street are even aware they're paying. Of those few on the street who have heard of the tax, the only people I've met who are not skeptical are either the ones who instigated it or the ones who were bought out as commissioners and now support it wholeheartedly. It's a cabal of about 10 people out of a couple of thousand stakeholders.

At today's meeting, I was vocal about these problems. They responded by delving into my personal life and calling into question my authority to speak on behalf of residents on Lincoln Avenue - even on my own family's behalf. On the defensive, they began asking whether I really reside here, whether I am registered to vote here, the status of the ALARM organization which was formed as a direct response to this mess.

Cornered by appeals to reason, they attempted to sow doubt and resort to personal invective, violating their own rules of conduct. But nobody in that room could claim they had nearly the experience with the residents that I have, particularly on this Lincoln Avenue tax. Nobody in that room was ever on the ground, talking to residents, asking the tough questions. Not one of them has walked the street and surveyed buildings one by one, as I have. Not the commissioners, not the program manager, not the alderman, nobody. And even I don't know nearly enough.

They have plenty of power but lack the true understanding of the issue that can confer real moral authority on their actions. This is very different from the debates in Wicker Park.

What these five people are doing makes me very angry. Drunk with their new power, itching to spend a big pile of our money, they invite costly vendors to parade in front of them, seducing them with their wares. The same thing has been happening on Clark Street and throughout the city. I aim to amend these taxes so that commerce pays most or all of it. I aim to change state law so that these taxes are harder to sneak past a poorly informed public. And we need more sunshine on this entire process.

What's wrong with this picture?

September 28, amid great fanfare, the lights went on at the new Victory Gardens space at the Biograph Theater. Just months before, another neighborhood institution - the Three Penny Cinema - closed its doors after 34 years because they could not afford to continue to do business in the city.

The Three Penny's Jim Burrows fell deeply in arrears on the city's 7 percent entertainment tax. Major distributors have "exclusive" deals with big corporate houses, like the Century, and will not send first-run movies to independents until they have run their course. "They tell me that Three Penny cannibalizes business from the Century and Webster Place," he told me. That's nonsense and it is anti-competitive. It also kills the very businesses that Ald. Daley appears to be trying to support with the Local First Chicago initiative and the "formula retail" ordinance.

Any small bookstore can buy any book in print for sale. A small grocery can buy brand-name products wholesale. No distribution chain is as anti-local business as the movie industry.

Biograph has a gala while Three Penny vanishes. As happy theater lovers sampled hors d'oeuvres and sipped champagne in the Biograph's new lobby, I wondered why the city and the alderman didn't go to bat for the simple, no-frills moviehouse across the street.

I want to support small, independent local businesses like Three Penny. Two years ago, I developed a plan for supermarkets and it has since broadened into a Retail Access Master Plan. This would give small local businesses like Three Penny a leg up. Businesses without local control would have to pay a higher tax. This is more productive, and less controversial, than any "formula retail" ordinance. It also helps to answer some of the problems that the "big box" ordinance endeavored to address.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Tribune finally catches on, Part II

As a close observer of the municipal elections and a longtime public critic of the misuse of city resources for campaign purposes, I can say confidently that it is highly unlikely that Ray Frias, former 12th Ward alderman, could be "appalled and shocked" about the political use of city services. ("If a tree falls in the city, is it just election time?", Oct. 15, 2006).

After all, Frias once sent his own aide and precinct captain, Susana Mendoza, to coordinate nearly identical efforts for the Hispanic Democratic Organization in the previous election. This was when he himself was involved with HDO. For this, Mendoza was rewarded with a seat in the state legislature.

More likely, Frias was stunned that HDO leaders would turn on him in the way that they did, using taxpayer money to support a relative unknown against him. That left many of us a little confused.

The stakes for the mayor's perpetual control of the City Council are quite high. Our taxes have been held hostage in this way every four years, in contested turf throughout Chicago, so that the mayor may maintain that control. In 2000, I discovered nearly 1,000 completed city service requests in an abandoned campaign office, many personally marked by Susana Mendoza.

Among those papers, one particular order - written by a Department of Transportation superintendent - showed that trees were not the only things to be removed in anticipation of Election Day. In two of the five runoff wards in 1999 in which Daley's HDO had an interest, perfectly good sidewalks were scheduled for demolition, specifically in front of polling places, right on the eve of the election. This was quite probably to deter voters in those precincts. A close analysis showed that the work was probably ordered by Daley's own campaign staff.

Lest the point be lost on more gentle readers, it is your money, coming from your property taxes. There is plenty on hand to do what needs to be done. If you ever hear neighbors complain about things not getting done, it is because some alderman is sandbagging those funds - your funds - for political gain.

The people leading these activities have been Mayor Daley's closest political lieutenants. Any suggestions that he is not aware of it and condoning it are simply not credible.

Upscale wards don't witness this kind of activity, because their political systems have evolved from ones supported by patronage precinct structures to ones governed by community organizations. Else they might understand that things are not normal in Chicago. Yet they too should take note, because this activity is encouraged from the highest offices in the city. Elsewhere, they call it corruption.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Cooperative Temperance Society

Some of you may have already seen this:


I saw it on Jennifer Roche's blog. It's another poignant chapter in our history. The disappointment we voice when we document or witness this kind of activity is a little bit sentimental nonsense, a little bit obstructionist innuendo - but most of it is the cry of real, visceral Chicago, its institutions, ideas, art, vanishing before our eyes.

My feeling is that the very need for Brown Line expansion - and most of Mayor Daley's other development programs - stem from his efforts to do development "the easy way," by cramming it into already stressed white middle-class areas of this sprawling city. For years I've watched community leaders throughout the area tear one another apart because they don't realize the agent of these misguided changes are not individual developers but the vision of the mayor's own planning department.

In the mean time, after 17 years we still have several dozen square miles, vast swaths on the West Side near underutilized and even boarded-up transit stations, that have no valuable architecture and no valuable institutions anywhere near them. And I've been lied to repeatedly, told that it is pure market response, when every day we see how the DPD pushes its agenda.