Capital spending article ‘misleading, factually inaccurate’

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We are writing in response to the misleading and factually inaccurate article regarding the Board of Education’s Capital Program published in the June 1997 issue of CATALYST. Initially, we decided to disregard the piece, but a couple of people have cited it, and now we feel compelled to set the record straight.

Despite the board’s efforts to implement the program even-handedly based on need, CATALYST reporter Dan Weissmann authored a piece claiming that the board’s expenditure of capital dollars has been driven by politics, with supposedly “powerful aldermen” and “middle-class constituents” benefiting at the expense of allegedly needier, less affluent wards. It seems as though his article was written to support a predetermined point of view. As explained below, Mr. Weissmann’s article is factually inaccurate and fundamentally flawed in numerous critical respects.

Mr. Weissmann’s article is based on the following syllogism:

1. The board in January 1996 ranked wards by “need.”

2. Actual spending in Phase I of the program did not match “need” as projected in January 1996.

3. Certain wards received a greater expenditure than the January 1996 “need” assessment would have suggested.

4. Some of those wards have supposedly “powerful” aldermen and “middle-class constituencies.”

Therefore, all decisions on spending were based on the presence of “powerful” aldermen and the presence of “middle-class constituencies.”

This syllogism fails at almost every turn.

First, the so-called “need” assessment upon which Mr. Weissmann relies is contained in the McClier Report, a study which was almost two years old at the time the board was first putting together the program in late 1995, but which was the most comprehensive systemwide analysis then available.

In fact, the board’s assessment of need has changed based on new information and field conditions, including new demographic data and projections produced in conjunction with the University of Illinois. This is consistent with the way any well-managed capital improvement program is run, and to operate otherwise would be irresponsible. Thus, for example, as the capital program unfolded, the board discovered certain schools had deteriorated so rapidly since the McClier Report was published to the point where immediate action was necessary. Similarly, based on field observations, greater resources were devoted to addressing environmental conditions than had originally been projected. Rather than ignore these conditions because correcting them was inconsistent with the original “need” assessment, as Mr. Weissmann would apparently prefer, the board addressed these hazards promptly regardless of location or demographics.

Moreover, if, as Mr. Weissmann contends, the board’s capital decisions were politically driven, it would have made no sense for the board to allocate projects based on a “need” assessment which the board knew was unacceptable. Either Mr. Weissmann is contending that the board did not realize which aldermen were “powerful” and which constituencies were “middle class” until after it published this assessment, or he is claiming that the board naively produced a “need” assessment which it knew would change based on so-called political considerations. Both assumptions are simply in error.

Second, even if Mr. Weissmann had accurately characterized the true needs of the system as assessed by the board based on an updated examination of field conditions and demographics, he misses the mark substantially in his calculations of spending by ward. For example:

Mr. Weissmann only analyzes dollars as of mid-April 1997. To date, the board has awarded projects with an estimated budget of over $600 million. A more accurate analysis would, at a minimum, need to evaluate dollars committed to projects over a longer period of time.

Mr. Weissmann inexplicably ignores the funds, now totaling approximately $230 million, committed by the board to new construction projects to relieve overcrowding. No fair and complete analysis of capital spending could overlook such a vital component of the program.

Mr. Weissmann fails to even mention the more than $600 million spent over the past eight years by the Public Building Commission on school projects.

While Mr. Weissmann elects to omit millions of dollars in grants which were used for capital projects in certain lower-income neighborhoods, he chooses to include $20 million in funding provided by the FAA for noise reduction in schools around O’Hare and Midway airports. Those funds, which are lost to suburban schools if not vigorously pursued and timely spent, are used on schools specified by the FAA, and the expenditures are a function of the location of airports, not politics.

Similarly, Mr. Weissmann fails to include in his analysis the $32 million allotted to the schools for capital maintenance in Phases I and II of the program, and the $84 million allocated to the schools for routine repairs and maintenance items in the last two years.

Finally, Mr. Weissmann simplistically ranks spending by merely dividing the limited dollars he chooses to count by the square footage of school space in each ward. In so doing, Mr. Weissmann fails to control for the fact that certain areas have older schools which may require more rehabilitation work, that overcrowded schools which predominate in certain wards tend to deteriorate faster than buildings under capacity, and that certain types of work such as environmental remediation are simply more costly per square foot than more routine capital renovations.

Third, and perhaps most serious, much of the body of Mr. Weissmann’s piece contradicts his premise. For instance, although Mr. Weissmann contends that political clout and the presence of middle-class constituencies are responsible for spending patterns in the 14th and 33rd wards, he later acknowledges that those wards have large Latino constituencies (which may or may not be “middle class”) with severe overcrowding problems and rehabilitation needs. Further, while Mr. Weissmann claims that so-called “clout” affects spending patterns, he grudgingly acknowledges that an alderman’s supposed status is not a “sure pass” to having repairs done, and casually brushes aside results of his analysis that many supposedly clout-heavy wards have had little activity by describing these wards as an “odd lot.”

Finally, confronted with the lack of factual support for his hypothesis, Mr. Weissmann resorts to quotes from members of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. This group, to our knowledge, has never managed capital construction and has had no role in the board’s Capital Plan. In fact, Ms. Jacqueline Leavy and Mr. Dion Miller Perez have only recently begun attending meetings of the board’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee. The Blue Ribbon Committee, which the board created two years ago, has been ably co-chaired by Dr. Wayne Watson, president of Kennedy King College, and John Rosales, president of a local Coca-Cola distributor, and has provided important input and advice to the board over the life of the program. Neither of these gentlemen were consulted by Mr. Weissmann for his article. Nor to our knowledge did he speak with any outside experts who have experience actually running a capital program on the scale of that being implemented by the board.

In the final analysis, knowing that Mr. Weissmann was studying the capital program for several months, and having provided to Mr. Weissmann thousands of pages of documents and open access to CPS personnel, the board had hoped for a fair and impartial review. Unfortunately, Mr. Weissmann appears to have been more interested in twisting the available data to support his preconceived conclusion. The result is a dangerously misleading article, which, fortunately, most people have either ignored or dismissed as biased.

Gery J. Chico, president

Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees

Paul G. Vallas, chief executive officer

Chicago Public Schools

Editor’s response: I stand by the methodology and reporting that produced the article, “Mell, Burke wards near top in school repair spending.” Sticking to the facts:

Mr. Weissmann’s article does not say, as Messrs. Chico and Vallas assert, that “all spending decisions were based on the presence of ‘powerful’ aldermen and ‘middle-class constituencies.'” Rather, it reports the findings of a data analysis that showed “the wards of some powerful aldermen and middle-class constituencies” had been favored over other wards with greater school rehab needs.

We ran our methodology by Operations Chief Tim Martin, who made one suggestion, which we followed.

We focused on school rehabilitation because the needs are citywide and of interest to the greatest number of people. We have since published articles on the board’s new construction program, which serves a more limited area of the city. (“New-school prototype: Not a Ferrari, but it runs,” October 1997)

We used the McClier Report because board officials said it was the best available comprehensive guide to need. Incidentally, it was commissioned by the previous Board of Education and released less than a year before the Reform Board unveiled its capital plan.

As for FAA grants, the data supplied by the board specified less than $650,000 in repair spending at the target schools, not $20 million.

We excluded capital maintenance and routine repair funds because they were distributed to all schools regardless of capital need.

We calculated both need and spending on a square footage basis to account for variations in the number, size and repair needs of schools from one ward to the next.

The Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee did not meet from June 1996 to February 1997. Ms. Leavy—whose organization has been tracking public works spending in Chicago for over eight years—and other committee members complained through last summer that they were not receiving adequate information to fulfill their monitoring function.

The April data was the latest available when we prepared our articles in May. We look forward to receiving the latest data so we can update the analysis.