Mell, Burke wards near top in school repair spending

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So far, spending decisions in the Reform Board’s capital improvement program have favored the wards of some powerful aldermen and middle-class constituents, according to a Catalyst analysis of school rehab spending in the program’s first year.

So far, spending decisions in the Reform Board’s capital improvement program have favored the wards of some powerful aldermen and middle-class constituents, according to a Catalyst analysis of school rehab spending in the program’s first year.

Catalyst ranked Chicago’s 50 wards by dollars spent per square foot of school space in each ward. The wards of City Council powerhouses Richard Mell (33rd) and Edward Burke (14th) placed in the top five. That group also included the 43rd Ward, which encompasses the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood, and the largely middle-class 18th Ward on the Far Southwest Side.

Little correlation between spending and need

The Catalyst ward analysis found little correlation between spending on repairs and need for repairs, as defined by a 1995 survey commissioned by the previous Board of Education.

Of the five wards with the greatest need per square foot, only one—the 18th Ward—also was a leader in repair spending. The other four neediest wards ranked no higher than 19th place in spending.

With the exception of the 18th Ward, the top-ranked wards for spending were not top-ranked for need. Mell’s, which placed 3rd in spending, ranked 24th in need; Burke’s, which placed 4th in spending, ranked 46th in need. Ald. Michael Chandler’s 24th Ward on the Far West Side, which placed 5th in spending, placed 15th in need.

Aldermen justify squeaky-wheel approach

Informed of his ward’s 1st-place standing, Ald. Thomas Murphy (18th) said: “Good. Glad to hear it. Can you tell Fran Spielman to do a front-page story on it?” (Spielman covers City Hall for the Chicago Sun-Times.)

Murphy says that aldermen can play a role in helping schools get the repairs they need. “We can get the ear of the people who are making the decisions about investments in schools,” he says. “We might be able to get their attention a little easier than the residents would, or the LSC may. And in that respect, it’s important.”

Aldermen have an advantage, Murphy points out, because many of them know schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas from Vallas’ tenure as the city’s budget director. “You develop a working relationship with someone [like Vallas]; it’s easy to carry on when they move to—I guess you’d call it—another bureaucracy,” he says.

“Vallas is very receptive to the community, to the aldermen,” says Tina Butler, an aide to Ald. Mell. (Mell was on vacation at press time.) Asked if her boss’s influence at City Hall was a factor in his ward’s good fortune, Butler says, “I wouldn’t call it his influence. I’d say it was his long experience. He knows where to look for the dollars, and he’s not afraid to make phone calls. His experience, his years in the council gives him an advantage, where he can really push for this kind of stuff for the community.”

School board justifies squeaky wheel approach

From the outset, the current school administration has made sure to keep aldermen in the loop. For example, it revised internal directories of schools and principals to include each school’s ward number. Tim Martin, the school system’s new operations officer, says he intends to keep aldermen well-informed of work being done in their wards. “They’re elected officials,” he says, “and … their constituents are sending their kids to our schools.

“Does the alderman calling get a quicker response than the LSC? If the LSC represented 50,000 constituents [as aldermen do], then yes, they’d get a response,” says Martin.

Martin says that an organized community can do a lot to get the School Board’s attention, with or without an influential alderman. They need to be aggressive and unified, and they need to present a clear, concise case, he says. “We respond to the organized complaints of the people,” he acknowledges.

He cites a case in point: “I just got 100 letters from Esmond School, which is one of the city’s oldest schools … and which is in the 19th Ward. That’s Ginger Rugai’s ward. If you want to talk about your aggressive aldermen, your influential aldermen, she’s there. But it’s the school that’s come up with an organized effort. Will they get my attention? Yes. Not because Ald. Rugai is there, but because they’ve come forward with an organized effort.”

The Catalyst analysis also found that political clout was not a sure pass to the front of the school-repair line. For example, despite close ties to the mayor’s office, the 11th Ward ranked 49th out of 50 wards for spending; the ward’s alderman, Patrick Huels, is Mayor Richard M. Daley’s floor leader in the City Council, and the ward includes Daley’s ancestral home of Bridgeport.

Community activist highlights squeaky-wheel approach

However, Dion Miller-Perez, an organizer for the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a citywide association that monitors public works spending, sees power politics at play in Burke’s and Mell’s high rank on the rehab list. Burke and Mell not only are among the council’s most powerful members, he notes, but also face changing constituencies. Due to the 1992 ward remap, both now represent wards that are more than a third Latino.

“If they’re going to stay in office, they’ve got burgeoning Latino populations they’ve got to keep happy where they are, and that’s the public schools,” says Miller-Perez. “One of the main concerns of that constituency is the schools, not just the overcrowding but the condition of them.”

“I think in Burke and Mell’s case, it’s not chance” that repair money has flowed to their wards, says Miller-Perez. “With Burke and Mell, you can’t ignore them, and you can’t ignore the fact that their constituencies are changing. They would have gone ballistic [if their wards had been neglected].”

The other wards in the bottom five are an odd lot, including the mostly white 36th on the Far Northwest Side, and the mostly black 17th, which covers much of the South Side’s impoverished Englewood community.

White, middle-class tilt

The upper reaches of Catalyst’s ward list tilt toward middle-class neighborhoods, which also are of particular concern to Mayor Daley. He has clearly stated his intentions to make the school system more attractive to middle-income families, many of whom move to the suburbs rather than send their kids to city schools.

Ald. Murphy, whose middle-class ward topped the spending list, agrees with the mayor’s strategy. “Really, keeping the middle class in Chicago is vital to the future of the city as a whole. And I think the mayor is correct, if you don’t improve the schools, you’re going to lose the middle class. So I think the capital improvement plan, along with other programs instituted by Paul Vallas, is a big step in the right direction.”

“Certainly the more attractive a school is, the more likely you are to get local kids to go,” says Murphy. “If the school’s run down, as a parent you’d be reluctant to send your kid there.”

Murphy’s ward spans two communities—one overwhelmingly black, the other mostly white. Western Avenue is the dividing line. So far, 18th Ward schools receiving major rehabs are all on the whiter side of Western.

“That issue has been the subject of some discussion in the community,” says Joe Damal, director of the Southwest Community Congress. “It’s sort of obvious, actually.”