Chicago’s rocky road to a federal grant

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After several false starts, the Chicago Public Schools recently won a five-year, $4.85 million grant under the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act. In the process, however, community groups that helped launch the effort have been left out.

In 1994, representatives from some 30 unions, businesses, community organizations, the Board of Education, City Colleges of Chicago and the mayor’s office set out to write the grant proposal with the help of a $70,000 planning grant. The overall goal was to organize clusters of businesses, schools and community groups to provide career training in specific industries, says Barbara Buell, then-associate director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy and a co-chair of the group. Schools that wanted to launch programs would be matched with outside partners.

The 30 representatives comprised an executive committee of a larger group of some 200, whose institutions had signed on to participate in the new programs. Calling itself the Chicago School-to-Work Initiative, the entire coalition filed incorporation papers, giving it the legal authority to oversee grant spendingunder the Act, grants must be administered by local partnerships.

But the feds turned down the coalition’s first proposal, deeming it “not specific enough,” Buell recalls. As a result, the partnership didn’t receive any money the first year funding became available. (However, another local partnership called EDGE/UP won a $475,000 grant)

Then, in a November 1995 meeting called to discuss the status of the second proposaldue in several weeksthe Illinois State Board of Education, City Colleges and the School Reform Board stepped forward. In essence, the three took over the grant writing, although those involved are reluctant to put the move in those terms.

The grant was in no shape to be submitted, says Christopher Koch, a policy advisor for the state board who was instrumental in the move. “I know what the feds look for, and it was not a competitive grant,” adds Koch, formerly with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

Proposal ‘too vague’

While praising Buell’s work as a facilitator, Koch says the proposal was “too vague” and failed to detail how existing programs and current funding would be woven into a single school-to-work systemthe aim of the School-to-Work Act.

The state board “had money on the line,” Koch adds, since it had continued to fund the coalition after the federal planning grant ran out. And by that time, the group’s co-chair, Diana Robinson of the National Alliance of Business, had joined the state board as associate superintendent of business, community and family partnerships, becoming Koch’s boss.

“There were some people who were upset … but there was a transition that needed to take place,” Koch says.

Too, because of the potential tie-in between state and Chicago funding, “it makes sense we would get involved,” Koch points out. Illinois currently has a $50 million statewide proposal pending and, under the Act’s guidelines, the remaining four years of Chicago’s grant money will have to come out of the state’s potrather than directly from the federal government.

Buell concedes that the citywide coalition’s proposal needed work, and adds that she is not bitter about the incident. The proposal “was definitely rough,” she says. “We were clear it needed to be edited.” (The state board, however, had turned down her request for a grant writer to help fine-tune the proposal.)

Because community groups and other representatives from the citywide coalition had been cut out of the grant-writing process, Buell felt compelled to withdraw, too. “I couldn’t put the Panel’s name or mine on something that wasn’t a collaborative effort,” she says.

“Very few people were involved from beginning to end in the process,” she adds. “It was a waste of talent not to use the people already involved.”

Several knowledgeable observers, who asked not to be quoted by name, call the episode “political.” Says one, “Instead of allowing the community to do the work, the [Chicago] board, City Colleges and state got together” to run the process.

Chicago plans to use its grant to fund five small schools and three alternative high schools that have a career focus; that plan was one part of the citywide coalition’s proposal. In the future, however, Chicago will have to come up with a more comprehensive, systemwide plan, Koch cautions. “The purpose [of the Act] is to set up a system that will spread to all schools within five years,” he says.

Daley picks monitors

The Chicago School-to-Work Initiative was also cut out of the oversight loop; now, the Chicago Workforce Board, a new group named by Mayor Daley, will oversee spending. The Workforce Board’s executive director is Patricia Fahy, formerly of the mayor’s office and a one-time aide to Sen. Paul Simon.

A separate School-to-Work Committee will guide the Workforce Board’s school-to-work efforts; the committee was also named by Daley, and the two groups have some overlap in membership, including heavy-hitters Ronald Gidwitz, board chair of City Colleges, and Douglas Whitley, president of Ameritech. Other members are from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, unions, corporations and state agencies. School Reform Board members are Powhatan Collins of the Office of High School Reorganization, Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James and Board President Gery Chico.