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Media let Duncan get away with latest budget evasions

From one point of view, Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award on May 25 when he proclaimed that he was going to “cut administration” while standing before the city’s TV cameras with two of the most expensive administrators in public school history standing directly behind him.

But that’s getting ahead of a story that requires a review of the basics of news reporting and at least a small reminder that the confidence Chicagoans should place in the “news” they get should be dwindling enormously as the summer begins and tense negotiations between Chicago and its public school unions move towards what may be the first strike in two decades.

Who? When? Where?

The Chicago Board of Education’s proposed budget for the 2007-2008 school year was still in the works in the various departments at CPS headquarters on Clark St.

On the Friday before Memorial Day, the city’s newspapers and other media received a last-minute alert to come to CPS for an important press briefing on the budget.

The alert came in the form of a press release, issued by fax at about 11:00 a.m. on May 25, 2007. The press release announced a press conference to begin at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon at 125 S. Clark St., Office of Communications, Chicago Public Schools.

It was Friday, with the Memorial Day weekend beginning. Most news in the Chicago area was focused on the traffic building up as people began leaving work early, and leaving town for the holiday.

So the chief of the third-largest school system in the United States was holding an important press conference to discuss local finances and legislative events — the Illinois budget for schools — that would still be taking place in the State Capitol in Springfield for another week.

Cynics in the press corps know that there are only two reasons (other than a true emergency) why a public body would host a press event on the afternoon of the Friday that begins a long holiday weekend.

One is that those officials don’t want the story to be major “news” and are hoping it dies.

The second — which becomes more plausible with each cutback in news reporting budgets by corporate media across the USA and in Chicago — is that public officials are hoping that the “story” is picked up by television news at a time when all of the experienced reporters are already out of town. As a result, the “news” will basically be replay of precisely what the public official says — “news reporting” which is basically electronic stenography, repeating the talking points of the powerful without anyone inserting other facts or analysis.

Friday afternoon is either where big stories go to die or where public relations staffs hope to place some TV sound bites without critical questions.

If the press conference is held when most experienced reporters are out of town, then the story that gets put in the can for the TV news reports is precisely what has been scripted by CPS public relations people.

And that’s what happened at CPS on May 25, 2007.

CEO Arne Duncan and Chicago Board of Education President Rufus Williams staged a media event that was designed to provide a sound bite for the TV “news” reports, but to also avoid any detailed questions.

The script Duncan was reading from was actually five years old. The CEO of CPS announced that he was going to “trim administration” in order to meet the budget needs of the schools.

Only one reporter noticed the irony of the situation.

While talking about cutting “administrative bureaucracy,” Duncan was standing in front of three bureaucrats he had personally hired. Two of them, one at a salary of $170,000 per year and the other at a salary of $150,000 per year, had been hired within the past six months.

The other, who is making slightly less than a hundred thousand dollars this year, had been working in a department that only exists to do the bidding of Mayor Richard M. Daley.

All three stood behind Duncan as if there was nothing unusual about Duncan’s discussion of “cutting administrative waste” while standing in front of at least three people who might in another context be cited as examples of administrative waste.

What?

By the time the May 25 event began in the Sixth Floor press conference room at CPS headquarters, it was 3:00 p.m. Before anyone spoke, the little stage which CPS has for these events had been carefully prepared with four charts, each showing something that Duncan wanted to convey to the audience with visual aides.

One chart purported to show that Chicago’s public school children have been doing better than public school children in the rest of Illinois on standardized tests.

A second chart purported to show that Duncan had been trimming “administrative” costs for the previous four years.

A third chart showed that Illinois was 49th out of 50 states in the percentage of school funding it provides to local school districts.

None of the financial charts showed anything more than a summary of the facts.

And none of the reports, data sets, charts or other materials prepared and distributed by CPS gave any actual total budget numbers, either for the Illinois figures that were supposedly low — or for the Chicago administration that had supposedly been “cut” since Arne Duncan first became CEO of CPS in July 2001.

Checked against the actual number of dollars provided to Chicago by Illinois each year, it turns out the dollars have been increasing rapidly since the 2002 election of Rod Blagojevich as governor.

Checked against the annual statements by the CEO of CPS that he was “cutting administration” each year since 2002, it turns out that there is no administration left at 125 S. Clark St., in the school system’s 24 (or 25, depending upon which month the budget is checked) “Area” offices, or in any of the half dozen other outposts where central functions are carried out.

Why?

At this point in history, the Daley administration counts on its ability to present a budget narrative that no one in the city’s dwindling press corps is able to calculate, let alone question. As a result, the presentation of very complex economic and tax data and other information — the essence of public policy decisions and debate — becomes more and more obscure to the average citizen. Parents of public school children are kept from the information that might help them understand what is available to their children’s schools as a tense summer begins and the prospects for major confrontations increase.

But that doesn’t matter if Arne Duncan is able to stand in front of the city’s TV cameras with two of the most expensive public servants in the history of the Chicago Public Schools and not be asked one critical question about his claim that he is “cutting administration.” 



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