Officials won’t divulge school repair plan

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Members of the Reform Board’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee on Capital Improvements have been asking for months for detailed information about projects the board is planning. School officials have had that information for months, Catalyst has learned. But they are refusing to release it.

Newly-installed Operations Chief Tim Martin says that he considers the current plans a work-in-progress. “What I’m trying to do is develop an intelligent document for public comment,” he says, adding that it would be “totally impossible” to do that in the next month or two. By next year, he hopes to have something the public can see.

“Oh, come on,” says committee member Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education. “We’re more than a year into what’s really, practically speaking, a three-year plan, and we haven’t received any of the information that we’d need to function effectively as an advisory group. Our oversight function cannot be fulfilled if we’re being treated like a rubber-stamp, do-nothing group.”

Martin admits that he isn’t sure what the advisory group’s function is supposed to be, but he says he will listen to its members. Meanwhile, Martin also says he fears the public might misunderstand current plans, which list more projects than the board currently can fund. “If I publish a schedule for a $1 billion program, the semantics of ‘It’s only half-funded’ will be lost on most people,” he says.

Martin says that he also wants to keep his options open—not only to respond to emergencies but also to create new policies. “For instance, schools that have done real well in terms of test scores, do we reward them with some technology? Internet access?” he asks.

Watchdog groups say that Martin’s fears about public misunderstanding are unfounded, and that the School Board has an obligation to disclose how it plans to use public funds. “There’s no reason why parents should not know what’s going on at every single school because we’re the ones who are paying for it,” says Dion Miller-Perez of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a citywide organization that tracks major public works projects. The group’s director, Jacqueline Leavy, sits on the blue ribbon advisory committee.

The currently available version of the School Board’s plans gives no information about schedules for individual projects, and little or no information about the projects themselves. Major renovation projects are listed in board publications with a price tag, but no description; for some other projects, board publications simply list a group of schools and a total dollar amount that will be spent on the group; for lead and asbestos cleanup, board documents say only that $90 million will be spent at a group of schools to be named later.

“That’s like a contractor coming to your house and saying, ‘I can get you a loan for $50,000 to do renovations on your house,’ but when you ask him what he’s going to do with it, he just says, ‘I can’t tell you that yet,'” says Miller-Perez.

As for Martin’s promises of greater disclosure and openness, Miller-Perez is skeptical: “I will believe it when I see it.”

Martin outlined the following changes in procedure, which address complaints from committee members, principals and local school council members that the School Board has not disseminated enough information about ongoing and upcoming work. (See Catalyst, April 1997.)

By summer’s end, parents will get pamphlets that give both an overview of the citywide capital improvement plan and descriptions and dates for work scheduled for their schools. The pamphlets also will outline steps that will be taken to minimize disruption and ensure safety, and they will say which inconveniences schools will have to live with (for example, moving classes to accommodate workers) and which they should not tolerate (“Like jack hammering on Iowa test days,” says Martin).

By summer’s end, principals will get a “bill of rights,” outlining what to expect from contractors.

As soon as he can manage it, Martin says, principals, local school councils and aldermen will be notified about a project when it enters the design phase so that they will have the opportunity to participate in design. He also says they will get another notice 45 days before a project goes out for bid, to ensure consensus on project details.

By next year, a multiyear capital budget plan will be released that shows which projects can and which cannot be paid for out of funds on hand. Projects scheduled for the first year of the plan, he says, will be more or less locked in; those in later years will be subject to change. (The plan released in February includes no information about schedules and does not say which of its $1.4 billion in projects will be paid for out of the $850 million on hand.)

The public will be asked for input in developing the annual and multiyear plans, through periodic hearings and meetings of the advisory committee. (The current plan was developed with no input from the board’s own advisory committee and adopted less than two weeks after public hearings, substantially unchanged; not until late May did the board send written responses to people who testified at hearings in February.)

Says Martin: “I think you’ll see an extremely logical system emerging.”