While we’ve allowed ourselves to be enchanted by warm spring weather and distracted by the Washington, D.C. soap opera, Chicago has done a few things worth noting this week.
1. Chicago’s Police Policy Reform Efforts Took One Step Forward, One Step Back
Police policy reform advanced this week when city Inspector General Joe Ferguson announced his nomination of Laura Kunard as the Deputy IG for Public Safety. Once Kunard, an accomplished criminology academic, is confirmed by City Council, she’ll be bestowed with a series of brand new powers for the IG’s office, including the authority to investigate the Chicago Police Department and IPRA/COPA. These new investigatory powers were granted as part of last October’s police reform ordinance. Reform advocates have a long list of things for her to investigate, including CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs and following up on recommendations made by last year’s Police Accountability Task Force.
Meanwhile news from Washington this week made it clear that a federal consent decree for police reform was dead, dead, dead. It was no surprise to many reform advocates, since then-Candidate Donald Trump telegraphed his displeasure with federal “interference” with local policing. “[The] DOJ consent decree was effectively dead in November,” one advocate told me earlier this week.
The loss of the consent decree removes political cover for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, says Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman in an excellent analysis of the political ramifications created by the consent decree’s death. In short: You can’t win election without the Black vote. Chicago’s black voters want police reform. But now Emanuel’s going to have to implement believable reform without the Feds playing the heavy.
Reform advocates have long anticipated and prepared for Trump and Sessions’ decision to kill federal assistance for police reform. One option, advocates say privately, is to pursue a civilian-run suit for a consent decree. In Oakland, California a group of citizens successfully sued the city in 2012, alleging years of police brutality and racial profiling. As a result, a federal judge appointed a full-time compliance director who had the power to fire the city’s police superintendent and make police policy changes without city approval.
Such a suit could be difficult and costly if the city of Chicago was not cooperative, say advocates, since it would require rounding up dozens or even hundreds of plaintiffs willing to testify they were targeted as part of long-running patterns and practices of the police department.
2. The Clock Continues To Tick For CPS
If you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you know that Chicago Public Schools need a helping hand. With a $210 million deficit this year, unless CPS gets the money from somebody, they’re going to have to close 13 school days early. The school system can’t raise taxes, because of a state mandated property tax cap, and its credit is so bad, further borrowing isn’t realistic. Gov. Bruce Rauner has repeatedly said he won’t allow a Chicago schools bailout and sympathetic Democrats in the state legislature don’t have enough votes to override Rauner’s veto.
That leaves the City of Chicago and its taxpayers as the funder of last resort. Since The Chicago Board of Education (the official name for CPS) and the city are two separate government entities, the city could potentially buy debt from the Board, at whatever interest rate it chooses. The trouble is: Where would the city of Chicago get the money to pay for it?
As we get closer to the end of the school year, the likelihood of a Chicago-CPS bailout becomes increasingly likely, but Mayor Emanuel isn’t giving any public hint that he’s willing to consider one.
Politically, he can’t. It would be Gov. Rauner’s dream for Chicago to bailout CPS, since Rauner could then turn to the rest of the state and say, “See, I made Chicago pay its own bills!” and would set a precedent for Chicago to pick up a bigger slice of its education costs than it has in the past.
But it seems more and more likely that Chicago will have to pick up the check. While there’s still two more months of legislative session in Springfield, the town is gridlocked and the State Senate’s grand bargain on the state budget is barely limping along.
Allowing CPS schools to close three weeks early would create a cascading series of problems for Chicago. Suddenly you’d have 380,000 kids across Chicago with no day care or activities to occupy them. Unless summer jobs and day camps start early, the system would struggle to keep them engaged and out of trouble. High school juniors counting on end-of-year athletic contests that determine college scholarships would miss their shot. Not to mention three weeks of student instruction that would be cut.
And then there’s the political fallout Mayor Emanuel would have to endure. Even though Springfield won’t pick up the check, it’s the mayor who wears the jacket.
So, unless the state legislature passes a veto-proof bailout in the next six weeks or so, it seems almost a done deal that the Chicago City Council will have to take a vote to cough up the $210 million difference.
Some portion could probably come from a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) account sweep. How much, nobody outside the Mayor’s Office knows, since the state of TIF accounts are closely guarded. But then the rest, let’s say a remaining $100 million, would have to come from some sort of new tax. Creating yet another tax vote for aldermen already wondering how many more tax votes they’ll have to take between now and the 2019 elections.
3. An Important Education Advocate Steps Aside
If you’ve spent any time in the world of Chicago public education over the last few years, chance are you’ve crossed paths with advocate Wendy Katten. A North Center parent with a son in CPS, Katten founded and led the volunteer public school parent organization Raise Your Hand for seven years, acting as a moderating voice that often seemed to split a reasonable difference between the Chicago Teacher’s Union and CPS leadership.
But then this week, Katten announced that she was stepping down from Raise Your Hand leadership because her family was moving to Evanston so her son could begin high school at Evanston Township High School. It was a shocking decision for many observers, especially since Katten was so committed to Chicago public education.
When I caught up with her on Thursday afternoon, Katten expressed a combination of sorrow and relief that she’d made the decision. Her neighborhood didn’t suit her family any more and her husband was from Evanston, one important factor. But also, her son was heading into high school and the CPS high school decision process was “demoralizing” for her family.
“Part of this is really all about CPS not taking over my life. This is a good move for my family,” Katten told me.
“We have the privilege to [leave], and some people don’t. We can pick up and move. I’m aware of that,” Katten said. But she was relieved to move on because between having a kid in CPS and being a full-time advocate, CPS pervaded almost every aspect of her life.
She and her family struggled with finding a good CPS high school for her son.
“I found the school selection process demoralizing and developmentally inappropriate,” for a 13 year-old, she said. “It was a burdensome process.”
As she admitted though, Katten and her family have choices. Living in the decidedly middle-class part of North Center, but within the boundaries of a great CPS elementary school, Katten’s family will have no problem picking up and leaving the fiscal and organizational mess Chicago Public Schools have become. While many other families, have no choice but to lump it.
Taking over for Katten will be a pair of South Siders, Hyde Park resident Joy Clendenning, and Bridgeporter Jennie Biggs. Both are former teachers.