Where are the dollars going, and for what?

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Dan Weissmann’s front-page report on the Reform Board’s failure to provide a public accounting of what it has spent on construction and renovation is not an article we set out to do. We wanted to provide a comprehensive picture of the building boom under way in Chicago’s public schools. We began asking for the information last November, to no avail. Then, we learned that other organizations had been asking for the information, to no avail. And so a different kind of story emerged. Then, with only one workday left before our deadline, we got more than 200 pages of fine print. Stay tuned.

In retrospect, we’re not surprised that the board doesn’t have its paperwork in order. Plans to upgrade the school system’s management information systems were repeatedly sacrificed throughout the 1980s to provide employee raises and balance the budget, as was school maintenance. But according to one former insider, past administrations weren’t all that interested in coordinated data systems anyway because they would have made questionable decisions stand out. Today, outsiders have the same suspicions. “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 of the Latino Institute.

That said, the Reform Board should be credited for doing an impressive job of jump-starting a massive, difficult program. As anyone who has done any home remodeling knows, such work is full of unpleasant surprises that can change plans and add costs. At the same time, the board is overhauling its entire facilities operation, bringing in private companies to do the job and, in a few cases, firing and replacing companies that fell down on the job. It’s an overwhelming undertaking. But it’s being done with massive amounts of public money, and the public has a right to know how priorities are being set and whether the board is adhering to them.

Meanwhile, the school watchdogs that have been trying to get information on capital spending might suggest some priorities of their own. As Weissmann reports, advocates for people with disabilities did that, and now the school system has a plan that equitably distributes scarce dollars to improve access to schools.

AWARD WINNER Debra Williams has won first place in the 1996 National Awards for Education Reporting, special interest and trade publications category, for her package of articles on student mobility. “Kids, schools suffer from revolving door” appeared in our April 1996 issue. The contest is sponsored by the Education Writers Association. Second place went to a 13-person team from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Williams’ mobility articles have received widespread attention: American Educator published a condensation; the late Albert Shanker devoted a New York Times column to them, generating requests from around the country; the Chicago Tribune Magazine featured the highlights. On the personal level, after being profiled in “4 schools, 5 years: One family’s moving story,” Edra Sanders decided to keep her children at Harvard Elementary School. Says Harvard Principal Laura Williams: “I think that article really opened her eyes to what happens when you move your kids from school to school frequently. It really had an impact.”

MOVING UP Jason Grotto came to Catalyst about a year ago to get some writing experience as an intern. Within weeks, Catalyst and The Chicago Reporter drafted him to fill vacancies in two positions the publications shared, circulation manager and office manager. Now, he’s back to one job, assistant to the publisher of Catalyst, with responsibilities for circulation, our Web site calendar and other support functions. And, finally, he’ll get to do some writing.

Catalyst ON THE AIR Our discussion about the Reform Board’s massive capital improvement plan will continue on the April 13 edition of “City Voices,” which is broadcast from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on WNUA-FM, 95.5.