For many schools, speaking up pays off

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Speak up. Speak often. Get your friends, neighbors and alderman to speak up with you. And don’t take a promise for an answer. This is the recipe for school rehabilitation and construction, Chicago style.

Repeatedly over the last two and a half years, Reform Board officials have responded when school principals, local school council members and parents have spoken up for their dilapidated or overcrowded schools. It shows on the bottom line. Following six public hearings last spring on its capital development plan, the board added or accelerated $259 million worth of projects. Only about $55 million, or 20 percent, were put in the “funded” category. However, the board has moved more projects into the sure-thing column in the last several months.

The effectiveness of the capital budget hearings “may be the best-kept secret in town,” says Jacqueline Leavy, director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a non-profit watchdog organization. “It’s seldom that you see a major change in a public budget as a direct result of citizen participation.”

While the $55 million “funded” addition is “a modest beginning,” she says, “the fact that things are on the table now, even if they’re unfunded, makes it much more likely that they’ll eventually be done.”

That’s why Scott Guercio, principal at Bell Elementary in North Center, isn’t too disappointed that the addition he requested at a public hearing last spring was put in the unfunded column. ” I want to be in line,” he says. “I don’t want to find out later that they’ve found a way to get more money and have to say to myself, ‘If only I’d started asking earlier.'”

Bell had not been slated for an addition earlier because the board overlooked a unique feature in calculating its student capacity, explains Guercio. In determining need, the board counts 30 students per classroom. However, Bell enrolls about 150 deaf students who are required to be in classes with no more than six students, and the board didn’t allow for that. Guercio says he has split some classrooms to accommodate two classes of deaf students. “And even then, at 12 kids, they’re maxed,” he says.

The board held the public hearings at the urging of Leavy and other members of the board’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee on Capital Improvements. Last year, the administration issued a bare-bones outline of its spending plans and didn’t identify which projects were funded and which ones weren’t. In committee meetings that followed, members hammered home the message that more public information and more public input were needed.

This year, the administration produced a 900-page tome listing every repair and construction project the board hopes to undertake in the next five years. Every school has a page that spells out four things: construction needs, as determined by the board; the projects that are planned; when the projects are to be done; and whether the money has been lined up.

Margaret Sanders, capital budget and schedule manager for the board’s Operations Department, says her staffers initially were skeptical. “The people I work with said, ‘Why do you want to do something that big?'” she recalls. “I told them, ‘My Blue Ribbon Committee says we’ve gotta do it!'” Sanders and a colleague spent long days entering, checking and rechecking the book’s contents by hand. She says the work paid off. “People kept saying, ‘Thank you for including our project. It’s good to know where we stand,'” she says.

Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education and a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee, says that at the outset some schools were skeptical about the hearings and didn’t bother to testify. With the board’s follow through, she says, “a sense of trust” is developing in schools and communities.

Sanders emphasizes that with need far outpacing available money, capital improvements are still a zero-sum game. “When people come with signs and busloads of people, saying ‘Take care of our school,’ and we say, ‘We’ll do your school’—well, that just means we’ve gotta take it away from some other school over here.”

“We’re not shy about saying ‘We don’t have enough money,'” she adds. “Let people know that we want them to bring their signs and their busloads of people to help us get state and federal support for this program.”

SPEAK UP Crown Academy in North Lawndale is a prime example of the benefits of speaking up. In October 1996, parent advocate Viola Boyd testified at a School Board meeting that the school’s boiler was broken and the playground needed resurfacing.

The next day, with a Catalyst reporter and photographer in tow, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas dropped by the school to take a look. The promises came tumbling out. “You know what we can do for you, we can put in a new playground,” Vallas said as he strode toward the entrance. “You need new windows on the building too. How’s your ceiling?” After spending a good chunk of the morning talking with students and adults—all the while taking notes on a legal pad—Vallas left Boyd and Principal Catherine Jernigan with a compliment and a promise: “You have a wonderful school, and I’m going to get it fixed. Call me next week, will you?”

Today, Crown’s playground is finished and major building repairs are well underway. (Vallas’s visit to Crown and the rest of his day are recounted in “What makes Vallas run?” published in the December 1996 issue of Catalyst.)

SPEAK OFTEN—AND GET HELP Joy Donovan, principal of Ravenswood Elementary, began pushing for major repairs in early 1997. Speaking at a public hearing, she described the sorry condition of the school’s roof, which was getting patches as far back as 1965, and its windows, some of which cannot be opened.

Nothing happened. So she repeated the litany at last spring’s public hearings. Soon after, Chief Operations Officer Tim Martin paid a visit. The roof was patched again. In August, the board’s consulting architects surveyed the school, reporting that parts of the building were in dire need of repair.

Meanwhile, Donovan continued to call and write board officials and she got Ald. Gene Shulter (47th) to do the same.

In late October, she got a letter from Martin’s office, notifying her that Ravenswood had been added to the board’s list of major repair projects for this year. “I think my faith in humanity has been restored somewhat,” she says. Donovan is quick to credit Shulter’s aid. “I think a lot of it had to do with (the alderman’s) help,” she says.

SPEAK OFTEN—AND TAKE WHAT YOU CAN GET “I’ve written Paul Vallas many, many letters,” says Mary Cavey, principal of Spry Elementary School in Little Village.

The school’s 1980s plexiglass windows have grown so cloudy that they’re no longer transparent. “When I’m in a classroom, I find that depressing,” she says. Its vintage bathrooms constantly need repairs. “I think the way the bathrooms are kept says something about how you treat your people,” she says, adding that Spry’s are at least neat and clean.

Board officials have said “no” to a bathroom rehab, which Cavey accepts. They agree that the windows should be replaced and the roof upgraded, but they say they don’t have the money.

However, the Operations Department has helped Cavey with other capital problems, and in her book, that counts for something.

Two years ago, Cavey participated in a program that paired schools with business partners who wanted to provide in-kind support. Spry’s partner, the law firm Mayer Brown and Platt (where the mayor’s brother once was a partner), brought in two others: the architectural firm Tunevich, Inc. and the bookstore giant Barnes & Noble. All four partners pitched in to build a library and a parent center. The school’s contribution was money from its routine repair and maintenance fund. As the rehab work was about to start, though, the board began slashing repair funds at schools across the city. “I literally lost $50,000 from my budget,” Cavey recalls.

Operations Chief Martin came to the rescue. “I had all my documentation,” says Cavey, “and Tim Martin’s office helped recoup the money that I’d lost.”

Cavey tips her hat, too, for the board’s work to relieve overcrowding. “None of this would have happened if the board hadn’t been working to solve Spry’s overcrowding problem,” she notes. If Finkl Elementary hadn’t been built nearby, she says, “We never would’ve had the space to do these projects.”

DON’T RELY ON PROMISES On Arbor Day, 1995, Mayor Richard Daley visited Morse Elementary School on the West Side. As Principal Leon Hudnall recalls, Daley asked Hudnall where the students ate and the principal replied, “You’re standing in it.” They were in the school’s basement. Hudnall says he added, “We call it the dungeon.”

Daley looked at the asbestos-lined heating pipes overhead and the lead-based paint peeling from the ceiling above the pipes, looked at Hudnall, and promised a new building that would give students a better place to eat. Two years later, Morse has two temporary units to relieve overcrowding, but no new, permanent building and no new lunchroom.

Last year, Hudnall got a notice from the board’s Operations Department, congratulating him and the school on the major renovation Morse was due to receive in March 1998. March came and went without a brick being set. And the draft capital improvement plan the board issued at the end of March didn’t list anything for Morse.

“I called several times about this letter, but no one has an answer,” Hudnall testified at a public hearing in April. “They keep saying, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ and no one has gotten back to me.”

In addition to the problems with the lunchroom, Morse’s windows are neither transparent nor secure, pieces of the cornice are falling apart, and two walls in back of the school are coming apart. Hudnall says an engineer who inspected the walls expects them to fall soon; one of them faces the school’s playground.

Martin visited after the hearings, but no plans were made. During the summer, Morse was awarded a computer technology project, including a new computer lab and an Internet hookup to every classroom. At the end of summer, contractors came to schedule abatement work on the lead and asbestos hazards in the lunchroom. They wanted to start right away, but Morse’s teachers and LSC asked them to hold off until winter break because they feared the work could endanger children and teachers.

Hudnall called Martin’s office again this fall, asking about the rest of the renovation project—the roof, walls and windows. As Catalyst goes to press, work on the wiring project has begun, and Martin is scheduled to visit the school again, but Morse’s basic rehab has not been restored to the capital plan.