Board behind on assessing needs, tracking spending

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The most ambitious school construction effort in decades has launched a flurry of overdue renovation, but officials are still unable to clearly state their spending priorities or offer details on where the money has gone.

Board’s priority criteria are mystery

Hundreds of millions of an anticipated $3 billion in capital improvements have been targeted, school officials say, and their focus has been on getting projects underway. A full accounting, they assert, will be provided later.

But principals and watchdog groups warn that the lack of information breeds suspicion about how the money is being spent and risks leaving the worst conditions unremedied.

“In a climate where they themselves say they don’t have enough funds to do everything that needs to be done, shouldn’t they be very well informed about what the need is?” asks Karen Berman, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

A typical complaint is voiced by Nancy Dean-Myrda, chair of the local school council at Solomon Elementary School in North Park. Solomon needs a new roof and windows but isn’t scheduled to get them. “There does not seem to be any process for getting on the list or for prioritizing the list,” says Dean-Myrda.

She was one of more than 150 speakers who showed up for three public hearings the School Board held in February on Phase II of its Capital Improvement Plan. Most speakers made pitches for repairs or overcrowding relief. Those from schools where work was being done offered thanks and usually asked for more.

Several speakers wanted to know who, exactly, they should call for information. And one, seeing his school was not listed for Phase II, protested that there must be some mistake: “Mr. Vallas called in October, and he assured us that we would be on the list.”

Concludes Dean-Myrda: “The process was to go to those hearings, but there is no process to do anything else. I don’t know how they decide [what projects get funded].”

The absence of clear information on spending also raises questions about the politics of the process. “Chicago being the city that it is, a logical question becomes, ‘Is it who you know, or whether your school is really in need?'” says Sylvia Puente, director of public policy and advocacy at the Latino Institute and a member of the board’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee on Capital Improvements.

Delayed accountability

Board officials make no apologies for plunging into capital improvement. “We’re working to get our Phase II started, and to get the money to pay for it,” says Ben Reyes, who until March 28 was the system’s chief operating officer. “Then we’ll build the database. This is a $3 billion job. We’ve got $1.4 billion of work lined up.” Studies will be in hand to set priorities “for the next $1.5 billion,” he says.

But as Dean-Myrda points out, not having a clear picture of need could boost overall costs. “Much of this will end up being done as emergency work at bigger cost, because it wasn’t done when it needed to be done,” she says, referring to her own school.

And accountability figures into the board’s quest for funding, argues Jacqueline Leavy, a Blue Ribbon Committee member and director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which monitors construction spending by the city and other local governmental entities.

“In order to gain and keep the trust of the public, taxpayers and other government policymakers, you have to have a track record,” she says. “You can’t just rely on your press releases. … With solid evidence that the program is on the right track, I think we could make a very dramatic case for federal and state aid. To make the case, you need the numbers.”

The Budget Group, The Latino Institute and the Lawyers’ Committee have been pressing the board for months about details on their capital spending. Recently, they were joined by members of the board’s own blue ribbon committee, which had not met for eight months preceding the board’s release of its 1997 plan update.

The lack of information even extends to schools that are next up for repairs. Patricia Wells, principal of Franklin Fine Arts Academy on the Near North Side, notes that signs went up last fall trumpeting rehab work to come. “Children First! Franklin School Rehab,” they say. But it wasn’t until late March that she learned what was coming: $290,000 for minor repairs to prevent small problems from growing.

“We all have someone to answer to; I answer to my community and my LSC,” she says. “So when they come to me with questions, it puts me in an awkward position to have to shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know what’s happening.'” Wells is a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee.

Huge information gap

School officials acknowledge they could have done a better job on communications and recently pledged to work with the Blue Ribbon Committee to find ways to close the information gap.

At the committee’s Feb. 12 meeting, the first in eight months, officials promised that a better accounting of rehab and construction would be presented at the next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 21. None was presented.

In the meantime, news had broken that the board was privatizing the management of the entire capital development program—a new direction that had not been discussed with the committee. “I sort of feel like, ‘Why are we here?'” said Puente of the Latino Institute.

Interviewed later, Puente explains her frustration. “I participate on the Blue Ribbon Committee to get some firsthand information, and I do that in order to be able to share that information with the larger school reform and Latino communities. … I don’t have the information I need to inform others, and that doesn’t look good to the constituencies that I hold myself accountable to. It puts me in a difficult position.”

At the meeting, Marjorie Schaffner, chief of staff for the Operations Department, and Robert Markin, chief of staff for the Reform Board, promised to take action on several suggestions from the committee:

Produce a report on expenditures.

Hold monthly committee meetings.

Work with the committee to develop training and brochures for principals and local school councils. The training would give participants a better idea of how the whole capital improvement process works: who’s in charge, how decisions are made, who to call and what to expect if their schools are scheduled for rehab.

The next meeting of the committee was scheduled for April 7.

“I think that accountability is the operative word here,” says Julie Woestehoff, committee member and parent organizer. “While they [the board] are demanding more accountability from schools—and acting so swiftly when they don’t see the results they want—they need to prove that they are accountable. … The conclusion I draw is that they’re not very interested in being accountable.”

Leavy’s view, however, is upbeat. “We can fix this,” she says. “I think there’s sufficient good will on all sides that it can be fixed. What’s needed is a different paradigm: Rather than the rugged individuals paradigm—where the staff have to roll up their sleeves and get things done—it’s the teamwork paradigm,” where staff view principals and local school councils as members of their team.

Noting that “many local school councils have long-standing facilities committees,” Leavy says councils could spare central staff some work if they were asked to report their own needs and priorities.

Summary of needs and progress

To establish its track record and show that its program is headed in the right direction, the board, Leavy says, needs to produce three documents:

(1) A detailed, verifiable account of work done to date.

(2) An assessment of what building repairs are most needed.

(3) A demographic study to show where new schools need to be built to relieve overcrowding.

Here’s where the board stands on each of the three points:

(1) Work done to date.

On March 14, Assistant Budget Director Karen Burke gave the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group a computer-generated summary of contracts approved through March 13.Catalyst received an updated copy of the same report four days later. The summary accounts for about $230 million worth of work, but in many cases it is described only in general terms. For example, $39 million in work at 68 schools is labeled simply “Renovation.”

On March 21, the Friday before Catalyst went to press, board officials made available 238 pages of documentation that show purchase orders and contracts by school. Officials say these data round out all the work for Phase I. But Reyes concedes, “You’d need to hire an accountant to sit and go through that stuff for a month.”

The board’s summary of Phase I touts $430 million worth of work—even though it has raised only $364 million for capital projects, according to the board’s year-end financial report for 1996. When asked, officials concede that many Phase I projects aren’t even underway.

Officials blame their documentation shortcomings on the lack of a unified accounting system. Detailed information exists only in pieces—in various computer files, on various computers, formatted for various software systems, explains Drew Becher, manager of finance for the Operations Department. “I mean, we’re working with some computers dating from 1963 here,” he says.

(Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, both computer systems and school maintenance were among the items routinely sacrificed to provide employee raises and balance the budget.)

“Would I like to have an integrated accounting system? Absolutely,” says Reyes. “But that’s not the priority. The priority is getting Phase II off the ground, and getting the bond money to pay for it.”

Meanwhile, Becher says the board has figured out a simple way to improve reporting on capital work: Contractors will be required to include school unit numbers (a four-digit number that identifies each school) on all their paperwork. From now on, he assures, every piece of work will be easy to track and to fit into the big picture.

(2) Assessment of needed repairs.

The board has plenty of information about what repairs schools need but lacks a system for setting priorities. So far, they’ve gone through two attempts to create one, and a third is said to be in the works.

The first was the McClier Report, commissioned more than two years ago by the Reform Board’s predecessors. McClier Corporation, an architecture and construction firm, sent teams of engineers into 525 schools to gather material for a computer database. The bottom line was $1.9 billion for repairs.

The Reform Board used the McClier Report to set priorities for last year’s rehab plans. But officials now say that McClier proved a somewhat unreliable guide to the amount of work that schools needed. “Once we got started, we found that things were much worse than we had thought,” says Reyes. Therefore, he says, the rehab plan was accelerated; schools were added, and the scope of work for already identified schools was expanded.

To upgrade McClier, school officials asked principals last summer to prepare facilities plans for their schools and to submit the documents on computer disks. Operations finance head Becher says he hoped the plans could be turned into a database that would guide future work. As it turned out, principals reported their needs so differently that comparisons could not be made from one school to the next, he says.

So, for the 1997 update of the Capital Improvement Plan, the board returned to McClier but also drew on information from the system’s property advisors, which are private firms the board hired to oversee maintenance and repair work at schools.

Reyes says he still hopes to clean up the facilities plans to create a systemwide database.

(3) Demographic study to guide overcrowding relief.

A $100,000 study has been commissioned from the Chicago Geographic Information Study, an arm of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is due by August. Board officials say it will help them target neighborhoods where student populations are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, Giacomo Mancuso, the board’s manager of planning and demographics, keeps tabs on overcrowding through a database that tracks the available space in each school, the number of kids and the number of teachers.

The most overcrowded schools get first priority for new construction, he says. “I haven’t heard too many complaints from anybody saying, ‘You’re building the schools in the wrong places,'” he adds. “There is no doubt in my mind that every addition and new school has been placed where it has been needed the most.”

Leavy still considers the demographic study overdue. “I’m really surprised it’s taken them this long,” she says. “It was well known when the Board of Trustees assumed office that we had a severe overcrowding problem.”

Puente of the Latino Institute wants clarification on a range of issues, including the board’s definition of overcrowding, its stand on controlled enrollment and whether it considers mobile units a permanent solution to overcrowding.