This is the first in a series of articles on the policies of Chicago Mayor Rham Emanuel.
As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel celebrates his mid-point year in office he also faces a number of controversies that have forced both pundits and citizens to reevaluate, not only his leadership, but also his ability to take the city from deficit to surplus, and to attract, and retain a base of support.
He had that when first elected and he took the office with the overwhelming support of the city’s African American community, and where all wards gave the former White House Chief of staff, and native son, a commanding victory – in fact Emanuel won 59% of the black vote.
Not insignificantly, part of that victory was the backing that he received from another native son, and former boss, President Barack Obama.
Now, in the face of Thursday’s announcement that 50 schools will be shut down mostly in low-income black neighborhoods, and facing increasing crime, the Emanuel administration is under intense scrutiny, even as those in City Hall present a brave, if not always forthright face, in the persistent onslaught of negative press.
“In any city that’s as segregated as Chicago, anytime that you destroy black schools and destroy black communities you can’t call it anything but racist,” said Kately Johnson, executive director of Action Now.
Such language, which might have been dismissed, a few months ago, as hyperbole is now becoming the norm in the nation’s third largest city; and the implications for Emanuel are, according to some observers, are causing some consternation among those closest to the mayor, according to city hall insiders.
School board officials noted that the shutdowns would hit 30,000 students, nearly all in grades K through 8 and “mostly attending poorly performing schools in African-American neighborhoods on the south and West sides, where enrollment has sagged in recent years,” said the Chicago Tribune, in late March.
Much of the criticism has been directed towards the Chicago School Board, who the Chicago Tribune describes as being “hand-picked”, and therefore not accountable to the public trust, despite Emanuel praising them “for taking their responsibility to our children seriously,” as they prepared to vote on the proposed closings this week.
And, for many long-time residents it seems like more of the machine politics that the Daley administrations, father and son, epitomized in this city of 2,695,598 residents, according to the 2010 census.
Of that overall count, 887,608 are black or nearly 33 percent of the population, and of those, 5 to 17 years of age, 435,743; or just over 16% of the population.
One fear that has been given significant attention is the specter of small children walking to their new schools, and crossing rival gang territories, where bullets often outnumber people on the street.
“People they may be fighting, they may be shooting. I don’t know what will happen in the neighborhood, Jayshawn Vinson, 10 told reporters as he anticipated moving to Mollison Elementary, where he not only might face stray bullets but “busy Martin Luther King Drive.”
Crime has been rampant in the city with 2012 fourth quarter homicide rates being reported, depending on the methodology used, as over 500, a Tribune study noted, or fewer than 500, using Chicago police methodologies.
The results, less than two weeks ago again, became a referendum on Emanuel with most voters split in his handling of the crime, but giving praise to police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, according to a Tribune/WGN-TV poll.
Voters gave the mayor a 34 percent disapproval rate last May to 47 percent one month later.
But, recent reports do show a sharp decrease from one year ago; but now in the middle of the mayor’s first term, show minority disapproval at a majority – 52 percent – with African American and Latino voters voicing their dissatisfaction.
And, with the second largest minority voters – Latinos – has disapproved of his crime-solving strategy “grown by nearly 20 percentage points in a year,” also according to the same poll.
The mantra from the school board, and in particular, by schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is that business as usual, including underutilized schools are not good for students or the city budget – but yet most accountants and city budget experts say that the savings might not be realized for many years.
The Tribune noted, “Savings from closing schools, though, won’t kick in immediately. Officials estimate that school upgrades, enhanced security and other transition costs will add $233 million to expenses in the short term, most of it aid for through bond debt at a time when the district’s credit rating has dropped.”
District officials say that their actions are directed to address a $1 billion deficit and declining enrollment.
Emanuel, on Tuesday, in an attempt to re-frame the issue, noted that the original intent was to shutter 300 schools and that the result was an initial 300, and the final list “whittled something down to 129,” at a press conference to address water and sewer replacements.
Josh Radinsky, associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Education at Chicago’s Learning Sciences and Curriculum Studies told us in an emailed statement that, “The proposed actions constitute the single most significant policy decision this Board will make for Chicago’s African American community.”
He notes that in a city with a strong legacy of racial segregation that “88% of the kids in the closing schools are Black – more than twice the district’s percentage. On the other hand, fewer than1% of the kids in those schools are white – less than one tenth of the district’s percentage.”
Radinsky also notes that this is a “policy for Black Chicago, specifically in West Side and South Side neighborhoods.”
He also recommended to a parent lead organization, Local School Council Advisory Board, that “CPS take a one year hiatus before acting on any proposed school actions, including closings, turnarounds, and re-locations to clarify the plan,” one that was summarily rejected by the Board.
Also rejected, and ignored, was the City Council’s Black Caucus plea to keep open 13 of the 54 schools.
Adding to voter dissatisfaction is that Emanuel took a Utah ski vacation, when the closings announcements were made, and promptly upon return told the city that the closing of 54 schools would be in their best interest.
As Ben Joravsky of The Chicago Reader wrote: “That means that 30,000 children would be moved into new schools. But, to hear the mayor tell it, more money would-be available for things like air-conditioning, libraries, and computers when the Chicago public Schools didn’t have to spend so much heating all those unneeded buildings.”
The resulting overcrowding became apparent to parents, pundits and politicos, but Byrd-Bennett stayed on-topic, and promised “better days ahead for children in ‘consolidated’ schools’ and furthermore, “For too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom.”
Much of the battle between Emanuel and the schools has centered on a belief that the city schools would be better if they were non-unionized, yet, as noted before, much of the higher test scores reported come from unionized schools.
Also, high on the list has been the personal antagonism between the mayor and Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who has, after the strike last autumn, vowed to oust Emanuel who she claims is the hand on the till, for the closings, and not the school board.
Last month, Lewis, who is black, told the press that “if the mayor and his handpicked corporate school board will not listen to us, then we must find those who will.”
Key to that effort is the CTU’s effort to register 100,000 new voters in time for the 2015 mayoral election when Emanuel is expected to seek reelection.
Lewis also said that “On May 23, we’re going right back in to the streets. We are going door-to-door in neighborhoods where people’s schools have been shut down and their jobs have been lost because of this administration.”
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