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West Side rejects CPS budget at tumultuous August 11 hearing at Westinghouse High School

Before the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) moderator could finish giving the audience her quick overview of the night’s schedule and public participation procedures, a woman burst in the back door to the Westinghouse High School auditorium demanding a chance to speak. The woman, accompanied by a small group, had been outside trying to get in — the doors were closed, the registration table in the hall was empty, but they wanted to speak.

The crowd of more than 200 people, including dozens of small children, cheered often as speaker after speaker criticized the Board of Education's policies and the stark disrespect with which CPS officials treated the people at the hearing, most of whom were from the city's West Side. Among the other complaints was that CPS refused to print copies of the 2,000 pages of budget documents so that people could study them before the hearing. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.They were admitted, assured they could speak, and after someone yelled out for the moderator to state her name. Jory Simmons then finished the overview. The start of the meeting foreshadowed who was in charge of this meeting: the public in attendance. It was August 11, 2011, the second day of the hearings on the $6 billion budget for Chicago's public schools for the 2011 - 2012 school year, and from beginning to end, the public was telling the Chicago Board of Education — We won't take it anymore.

On Thursday, August 11, 2011, CPS held the second of three public hearings on its FY 2012 Proposed Budget. The meeting was held in the auditorium of Westinghouse High School, located at 3223 W. Franklin Boulevard. As indicated above, the entrance was not easy to find. The school takes up a city block, with small parking lots on its east and west sides and street parking in front. There were no signs indicating that the entrance to the meeting was way back around the west side of the building. The meeting started at 7:10 p.m. with an audience of approximately 200 adults and 75-80 school age children.

CPS personnel introductions took place: Melanie Shaker, Interim Chief Financial Officer; Ginger Ostro, Budget Director; and Arnaldo Rivera and Adrian Husband, Deputy Budget Directors.

The woman transcribing the notes was not introduced. Melanie Shaker began by congratulating the panel on what she considered to be the previous night’s successful hearing (at Lane Tech High School, 2501 W. Addison Street) – the purpose being to hear from the CPS school community, with the conversation to continue online. Friday’s meeting is scheduled at Simeon High School, 8147 South Vincennes Avenue.

Speakers noted that the people representing the Board of Education were not Board of Education members and had no experience in the city's public schools. One speaker noted that none of the people at the 2011 hearing had been at the hearings as late as two years ago, and that CPS had been replacing them like they were "spare parts" to mollify an increasingly angry citizenry as the attacks on public schools grew. Left to right above: Adrian Husband, Deputy Budget Director; Arnaldo Rivers, Deputy Budget Directory; Melanie Shaker, Interim Chief Financial Officer; and Ginger Ostro, Budget Director. Ostro is completely new to CPS, having been in office less than two months, while the others have been around less than two years. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Ginger Ostro began a power point presentation of the FY2012 Budget Overview (available online at cps.edu). She spoke from the slides, explaining what she claimed were the daunting financial challenges CPS faced while unwilling to cut into areas of its “core priorities” – yadda yadda yeah right yadda - maintaining class size, maintaining pre-K funding, expanding all-day kindergarten, maintaining World Languages, expanding magnet school programs, and “continued investment in violence prevention initiatives,” the last one turning into one of the evening’s hot topics during public participation.

What she left out was that, for the first time in history, CPS had not provided the public with copies of the Proposed Budget across the city. Instead, supposedly because there wasn't enough money to print the books, CPS had five copies at 125 S. Clark St. and had posted more than 2,000 pages of budget materials on the CPS website. But, as was later pointed out over and over, many of the families on the city's West Side don't have computers and can't spend hours reading minute financial information from a computer screen. It was as if those who run the city and its schools wanted to guarantee that the public would not be able to figure out the most important piece of the public's business — how the city spends the tax money it collects for the education of its public school children.

The audience sat through the mayoral talking points on CPS’s “cut-and-invest strategy,” along with viewing upside-down negative graphs and a dramatic line chart plotting a nose-dive decline in revenue for 2012 with an intersecting rise in expenditures. (Curiously, as pointed out at the Lane Tech hearing by Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) Kurt Hilgendorf, the same graph data this year being shown as a surplus was shown as a deficit last year when presented to the public during Ron Huberman’s budget hearings.)

All the blame for the rise in expenditures was placed on the employees: teacher step and lane increases, pension costs, salaries, and health care. Arnaldo Rivera informed the audience (tonight as he had last night) that citywide positions were not budgeted at the school unit level, even after this reporter pointed out at Lane Tech’s hearing that that wasn’t true; in fact, city wide (CW) and central office (CO) amounts were reported at the school level in the School Segment Reports, making those budget numbers different from individual school budget numbers in the Proposed Budget Book, creating one of MANY problems anyone trying to navigate this mess of a budget might encounter. Finally, an already skeptical audience was given the supposed-to-be spooky talk about “What would happen if…” property taxes in Chicago were not raised as CPS is proposing. The Westinghouse audience audibly moaned.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: 34 Speakers

Valerie Leonard, co-founder of Lawndale Alliance, followed by Dwayne Truss, member of the South Austin Coalition Community, got the ball rolling against Tax Increment Financing (TIFs). Ms. Leonard presented much financial data regarding TIFs, in summary stating that if CPS utilized the money it was not presently getting from TIFs, taxes would not have to be raised and cuts could be restored. Mr. Truss told the audience to contact all their elected officials. He pointed out that while TIF money was being given to companies the likes of United and Coca Cola among others, these companies were not creating any jobs. The city needed to view “teachers as economic development.” He said that it was “double taxation” when taxpayers had their taxes raised after paying for these TIFs but they got nothing by way of jobs.

CPS panel member Melanie Shaker gave the same talking points as at the Lane Tech meeting: last year it was a fluke that CPS got TIF money for other than capital building and improvement, and the mayor’s TIF Task Force was looking into things.

Chicago Teachers Union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle (above at microphone) told the hearing that the budget of $6 billion was not about numbers, but about people — especially children — and that it is therefore a "moral document." She and other speakers criticized the robotic approach of the CPS officials to the budget as fundamentally immoral, a reflection of the bigger problem the city's public school people face as the administration of Rahm Emanuel approaches most of its plans from a numerical control point of view. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Kristine Mayle, CTU Financial Secretary, spoke about a budget being a statement of moral and political convictions, as well as something that needed to be done in partnership with the school community. And in an ideal world, this budget should be about a world class education. Instead, a cursory analysis revealed gross errors, hidden surpluses, reneged commitments to the local economy via lay-offs, and proposed cuts that would harm students. TIF funds were robbery funds for connected interests. TIF money could have been spent for: air-conditioning in the schools, funding over 3,000 teaching positions, and full-day kindergarten for 30,000 CPS students (compared to CPS’s 6,000 students). When Ms. Mayle spoke of wasted money and resources going to charter schools, the audience applauded and cheered loudly.

The audience continued cheering and clapping when Jesus Ayala, of Education Now, hit the same question/demand theme: why are charter schools being supported when neighborhood schools are suffering lay-offs and cuts? He said that charter schools paid high school students $20 if they raised their ACT scores 3 points, getting three chances on the test; in this way, they continued until their ratios were improved. And CPS was supporting and glorifying this environment?

Another theme of the evening was: Restorative Justice programs. Instead of continuing CPS zero-tolerance policies of suspension and expulsion and high-tech security cameras, investments in alternatives were needed. Speakers throughout the evening included Janet Vargas of the High HOPES Campaign, students from Gage Park and Roberto Clemente High Schools, as well as Cameroon Elementary School - including Quabeeny Daniels, Vanessa Redmond, and Jameisha King. A teacher from Shields Elementary School, Alexandra Hollett, also spoke out for CPS to fully fund and support Restorative Justice programs, claiming a transformation would take place with only $42 million/less that 1% of the whole CPS budget. Students informed the CPS panel that they wanted money spent on better lunches, desks, and books before they needed high-tech security cameras and zero-tolerance policies.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 custodial worker Lourdes Gonzalez, from Roberto Clemente High School, asked the panel how custodial staff levels were determined for schools. Arnaldo Rivera took the bait and answered: they are based on the square footage of the building. Ms. Gonzalez then asked them if they were aware that school janitors didn’t just work inside school buildings; outside of the schools they cut lawns in summer, shoveled snow and salted sidewalks and parking lots in winter, maintained baseball fields, etc. Yet CPS was laying off 200 janitors following this indoor-only based formula. Another female custodian hit the same theme later in the meeting, that their work was not just floors and garbage.

If pre-K and early childhood funding was a CPS priority, Jose Hernandez of the Pilsen Community wanted to know why the program there was being cut. Ginger Ostro said they would get back to him.

Then, speakers began coming forward from the Safe Haven after school programs. As each spoke, children held up signs asking: “What is my life worth to you?” Jasmine Rizari roared, “I thought NO CHILD was supposed to be LEFT BEHIND!” She was not asking, she was begging for CPS to restore the cuts proposed for this program. Kids needed a safe place after school, before working parents could pick them up; they needed a place to do their homework and eat. Did CPS want these faces here to become victims out in the streets? The audience chanted: “WE WANT SAFE HAVEN!” Speakers included Betty Robinson from the Austin Community, stating that CPS had it backwards, kids needed safe passage and support programs not death; this budget needed another look.

Wanda Hopkins, Assistant Director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), and also of the South Austin Coalition, told the panel to go back to the CEOs and ABCs and DEFs and tell them to tell the mayor to put the TIF money into education. She was insulted that copies of the Overview on the screen were not readily available for the audience and demanded a copy. She questioned how CPS picked and chose some charter schools to pay rent while others didn’t (or paid $1 a year). How in the world did CPS give so much to charters when the regular schools didn’t even have decent desks? The city of Chicago was playing their game of… telling you it was raining when… (she didn’t finish). When time was called, she told them she deserved her time and went on. She had never seen a transparent budget from CPS, particularly when it came to the charter schools. Ginger Ostro was yelled at by the audience when she suggested that Ms. Hopkins could get a copy of the Overview online.

Kati Gilson, wearing a CORE t-shirt, spoke of the wasted money going toward early childhood standardized testing, that had no accurate reporting or accountability measures in place besides. She demanded an itemized CPS budget, and in particular information on $9 million allocated for “new early childhood projects.” Ginger Ostro replied that this money was from the state, for capital construction, but CPS did not have the guidelines yet.

Charles Gibson spoke for Safe Haven, saying his three grandchildren were alive because of the program. With loud audience support, he compared $600,000 in security for one elected city official who got death threats to 4,000 inner-city children and asked, “Who is worth more? What kind of math does CPS do?” He loudly asked the panel, “DO ANY OF YOU HAVE KIDS IN CLASSROOMS HERE???” He was followed by a student from Curie High School asking the panel to imagine the futures they are changing for these children, as they face bad neighborhoods, gangs, and shootings. The audience chanted: “SAVE SAFE HAVEN!”

CTU’s Jackson Potter spoke of the toxic swaps CPS had with banks as well as the TIFs. CPS contracts with banks mattered and couldn’t be renegotiated, but not so with social contracts with students and parents (referring to Safe Haven), or contracts for people who worked for CPS. Where was the shared sacrifice? When members of the panel began their “TIFs are meant only for capital expenditures” talking points, Jackson turned to the audience and said, “If they can’t hear us, we need to make them listen! Is this a democracy or is this a dictatorship!?” He told the audience to stand up if they rejected this budget – to which the vast majority stood up with clapping and cheering. At this point, Melanie Shaker very snootily said that if anyone wanted to hear them, CPS was discussing long term contracts and activities with banks, but when she went into the TIF talking points, the audience started chanting at yell-level: “SHAME ON YOU!!!” Someone very loudly also yelled, “LIAR!!” as she was trying to speak. The moderator implored everyone to remain calm and courteous so the rest of the speakers could be heard.

The next speaker was Diana Strzalka, a teacher from Foreman High School where they had a converted girls’ washroom for a classroom. She asked and demanded answers: How many new charters are proposed and how much money? Ginger Ostro quietly answered: four new charters and $10 million. Ms. Strzalka asked: How much more for existing charters? Ostro didn’t really answer: well, additional charters are adding grades, so… Someone in the audience yelled out, “What about my kids?!” The teacher speaker said that charters were greedy corporate monsters, taking the money out of and wrecking public education while the neighborhood schools were neglected. She then asked the panel to name the 14 schools receiving the security cameras, betting they were in overlooked neighborhood schools. After much dead air, the panel members found the names of the schools but didn’t get far into reading the list (Clemente, Hyde Park…) over the jeers coming from the audience.

By the time Ed Hershey, a teacher at Lindblom High School Math and Science Academy, asked that the panel members make a commitment to stop the diversion of the TIFs, the response from Melanie Shaker over the jeering was: “I think we made it clear” - they were not there to make commitments, but they heard the audience loud and clear. The audience was by this point, if not sooner in the meeting, united in clapping or cheering for each speaker and “jeering” the CPS panel.

Pastor Minister Cy Fields of the New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church asked the panel point blank: Have any of you ever had to attend the funeral of a CPS student, a victim of violence? It was a heavy thing to do. He told them that Safe Haven programs worked. The money cut (2/3 of the Safe Haven budget) was a drop in the bucket and cost effective to CPS. He was insulted by CPS’s Dog and Pony Shows – first they champion these programs for the cameras out in the neighborhoods (referring to Mayor Daley and CPS officials in 2010), then they slash them. What was $1.4 million compared to 4,000 children’s lives? He said they could answer with his remaining time. When the response from the panel amounted to talking points about “hard decisions,” he told them that when the violence goes up it’s on the heads of CPS.

A young volunteer with Safe Haven reminded the panel that it took a village to raise the children, and asked what was profit to them if they lost their souls in the process? A woman said that children should be the priority, and CPS was setting them up for failure – to be homeless, hungry, and victims of violence. She asked what they were doing with our tax dollars - it was our money and they needed to stop supporting privatization. It was our money paying for their jobs, referring to the panel members.

The next woman, the one who arrived late, asked if the panel knew that not everyone had access to computers, and that she barely found out about this meeting. She said that this panel and CPS produced paper to try to prove something but did nothing in reality except storytelling. This was all just a show. And how about if they used the salaries and perks from the panel members for much-needed air-conditioning at her school?

Grady Jordan said he represented himself as a property owner in Austin. His taxes were already doubled, and now they wanted more. And what does the community get for the money? There is a high school in Austin, the city’s largest community, but the neighborhood kids can’t attend, they have to travel 3 miles away. Many kids just drop out. He asked: “How in the hell does that make sense?” It was immoral and criminal. He pointed out that in 1995 45% of CPS teachers were black, but in 2010 the amount was 29%. Referring to the panel on the stage he asked: “Where are the black folks up there? Can’t you find black folks who can count money?” Dr. Jordan was followed by George Schmidt, who introduced himself as a proud blacklisted teacher under Paul Vallas. He turned to the audience and asked for any of the 7 members of the Board of Education in attendance to stand up. When none did, he said: “That answers a lot of questions.” He said he had been doing this for over 20 years, and asked for all the panel members with more than two years of experience in this process to stand up. When none did, he said their salaries were lots of money for no commitment to this system. They were just part of the Dog and Pony Show, replaceable parts of the machine. He said that for the money it took for the Board to print the door hanger notices passed out there (as he held one up) and all over the city (“FIRST DAY – Better Attendance. Better Students. Better Life.”) – CPS could have printed copies of the budget and given them out, as they had previously for 150 years, to libraries and ward offices. This was an attempt to stop the public from reading the budget and figuring out the games and scams. He urged the audience to attend the next Board of Education meeting on August 24th. He said he’s been a parent in the system since 1995 and was in it until 2023. If any of the panel members was still here in five years (he listed past, similarly-situated, board employees presently in positions outside of CPS), then and only then would the audience believe their assurances tonight.

Israel Enrique, a community organizer from Little Village and North Lawndale, wanted to work united with Safe Haven. The Hispanic and African-American communities needed to come together, not be divided. CPS was not getting better, as he had long wished for after graduating from Farragut High School. The audience chanted, “SHAME! SHAME!” as he told CPS to “stop acting like you don’t know what’s going on! Get it together, CPS!”

A parent for Safe Haven said that not all schools needed this, but they did. When they give their money to CPS, they never see it trickle down. CPS needed to “build these kids’ lives, not build on their backs.” Nate Chavez, from SEIU Local 73, asked: Why are no politicians here? Why are you raising taxes when you can get money from TIFs? Why can’t the big businesses donate to programs like Safe Haven? He was followed by another young man who spoke of the TIFs in Greektown going for a supermarket, when there was a Dominicks already across the street. Where were the priorities in this city? And why were the budgets available only online with less than five days before the hearings? This man was followed by Edward Ward, a recent graduate of Orr High School, almost a victim of gun violence himself, who was tired of hearing about failing schools, tired of program cuts, and tired of raises for people no students in the schools ever saw. The moderator started to end the meeting, but Zulma Violeta Ortiz, got up to speak. She spoke in Spanish, then English, with concerns about only 20 pages of the budget available in Spanish. She told the audience: “Take it to the streets to demonstrate!” She said a phrase in Spanish that she explained to the audience meant “shame on you.” Then she, and members of the audience with her, repeatedly, in both English and Spanish, kept saying “Shame on You!” to the panel as the meeting came to a close.

The last words heard from the panel were from Melanie Shaker encouraging comments on the CPS website.



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