Reform reporters resort to poetry rather than reading CPS financial reports... Catalyst clueless on CPS budget realities

On February 15, and 16, 2012, Catalyst magazine, which once billed itself as "voice of Chicago school reform," unleashed two stories about Chicago's schools, both of which displayed the magazine's unwillingness or inability to grapple with the public information available about how CPS lies about its finances, thus continuing to promote the austerity narrative that CPS wants even in the face of evidence much to the contrary.

In a February 15 report, Catalyst begins by saying that CPS is awash in a "sea of red ink." What "sea of red ink" at CPS? Despite the lead to the Catalyst story (and the conventional wisdom among the corporate media in Chicago, CPS is not looking at a "sea of red ink." But in just about every corporate news report on CPS finances, the reporters and editors resort to doggeral and worn out metaphors when reporting on explosive financial realities. In fact, since December 2011 reporters have had in their hands a report which showed that at the end of his time as "Chief Executive Officer" for CPS, Ron Huberman lied about the "daficit" supposedly facing CPS to the tune of a half billion dollars. That's right, according to the CPS audited financial reports for Huberman's last year in office (the school year that ended June 30, 2011, of "FY 2011" in finance jargon), the "variance" in CPS fiances by year's end was more than $500,000,000. That is the difference between the money CPS claimed it didn't have and the money CPS actually did have by year's end, when the books were balanced.

The "sea of red ink" nonsense is not the first time Catalyst has substituted metaphor or simply ignorance for an analysis of the financial facts. Years back, two of the most clueless education reporters, one of whom was Linda Lenz of Catalyst, were talking on WBEZ radio about how CPS was facing a deficit of "zillions of dollars..." and didn't even bother to talk about real numbers. Inside the small world of those who report on public education in Chicago, "everyone" knows that CPS always has a huge "deficit" and that cuts are the only way to be responsible. The "deficit" narrative has been central to the strategy of CPS no matter what the financial facts are for more than ten years.

First, a "zillion dollar deficit." Now we're reading, again in Catalyst, about a "sea of red ink"?

Sez who?!

According to the latest CAFR (which went to the Board of Education in December 2011 and has been available on line since January at, CPS began fiscal 2011 claiming one of those "seas" of red ink. Yet somehow by the end of fiscal 2001 (June 30, 2011), CPS had found an extra half billion dollars, which flowed into its bottom line as cash.

Yes, that's what any reporter or member of the public will find on page 44 of the FY 2011 CAFR. There, the "variance" between what CPS said was going to happen and what did happen during that fiscal year turned out to be $560,365,000. That "variance" left CPS at the end of FY 2011 with a "Fiscal Year Actual" fund balance of $740,380,000. That's more than three quarters of a billion dollars of money in the bank, Catalyst, not a "sea of red ink."

In other words, Ron Huberman lied when he told John Cullerton and Mike Madigan (n April 2010) that CPS was broke and they had to raid the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund again. And Huberman lied again (in the preface to the FY 2010 CAFR) when he went all the way extrapolating and said, in the narrative, that CPS was facing a "deficit" of "nearly one billion dollars." Of course, Huberman may not have been lying, either in Springfield or when he worked his prose in the introduction to the FY 2010 CAFR. An English major in college who went on to become a cop, Huberman, although he was known as a "numbers guy" never really had any training or experience in financial work, or accounting training. His version of numbers consisted of politically charged "performance management" activities in three major city departments, each of which was designed to please Mayor Richard M. Daley, not to reveal much about the actual functions and costs of government. After stints at Emergency Management and CPD, Huberman became Daley's choice to head Chicago's public schools, amid cheers from the city's corporate media. Huberman quit when Daley announced in the fall of 2010 that he was not going to run for another term as mayor.

But back to Catalyst, and the conventional corporate media wisdom about CPS finances. Does anyone believe that anyone can stop the breathless Catalyst nonsense about "zillion dollar deficits" (Linda Lenz, a couple of years ago) or a "sea of red ink" (Rebecca Harris, yesterday) and do one of two things.

Either keep your mouth shut when CPS is feeding you bogus numbers, which you then turn into mindless metaphors which only confuse reality really much.

Or hire someone to report on CPS finances who will (a) bother to read all of the CPS financial documents, (b) ask the important questions when CPS officials slide out those mindless metaphors, and then (c) for the first time in a decade actually report some numbers, and not sink into bad poetry whenever CPS is trying to fog up another major and explosive political issue.

By the way: The most relevant balance sheet for this comment is found on "Page 44" of the CAFR (which appears when you hit Page 52 in the PDF). If you get the print edition (which CPS as usual is trying to hide from the public) you can get it on page 44.

And if you don't understand what all those numbers means, instead of reverting to "Doggeral 101" ask three or four people who know how to read and explain a balance sheet (which even your own accountant may be able to help with).

And don't think I'm denigrating poetry here. I came to Chicago in part to study poetry, which I did, under of all people Robert Pinsky when he was a young associate prof at the University of Chicago. It's just we should bar bad poetry when it's shoveled out as a substitute for reality, and let the boring accountants try to explain something as complex as this unprecedented "variance" before we get into another mess because our storytellers and, again, falling into the narrative traps set for us by people like the Liars at the top of the CPS pyramid today.



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