Thursday, June 6, 2013

School closings in Chicago—I ain't over 'em yet!

Posted By on 06.06.13 at 05:00 PM

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel
It's been two weeks since Mayor Emanuel's school board followed the boss man's order and closed 50 schools. And I haven't gotten over it yet.

Obviously, some things just take time.

It reminds me of when the U.S. Supreme Court made George Bush the president by stopping the recount in Florida, thus ushering in eight years of war, recession, apocalypse in New Orleans, and other assorted miseries.

As you can see, 13 years later and I'm still not over that one. Maybe by 2026, I'll have forgotten Mayor Emanuel's assault on public education. Then again, probably not.

By the way, there are a few parallels. As I recall, Justice Antonin Scalia—the brains behind that Supreme Court coup—famously told Democrats to "get over it."

Which is similar to what Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of the schools, said in a speech last week. "Whatever has happened this past year, it's done. It is time to turn the page."

Yeah, easy for her to say. We, the taxpayers, are paying Byrd-Bennett $250,000 a year to be the public face on the closings. That's on top of the $300,000 we paid her predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard, to leave town after Mayor Emanuel fired him in the middle of his contract.

Obviously, I haven't gotten over that one either.

I'd probably have an easier time getting over this stuff if Mayor Emanuel hadn't doubled down on the pain with a grandiose TIF scheme. He wants to take $55 million in property taxes—at least half of which comes from the schools—and use it to buy land for a DePaul basketball arena and hotel on the near south side.

So we have $55 million to waste on a hotel and a DePaul basketball arena. But not enough money to avoid closing 50 schools. Sorry, Ms. Byrd-Bennett, but it's really hard to turn the page on that.

Just so you know—once the city buys the land, it becomes tax exempt. So the schools lose on two ends. They lose the $28 million or so the mayor's taking from them to buy the land. And they lose all the future property tax dollars the land would generate.

In other words, they're spending money to lose money. Definitely tough to get over that.

Part of the problem in getting over stuff is that I'm surrounded by other people who can't get over the same thing. Maybe I should start hanging out with people who apparently don't give a hoot—like Mayor Emanuel's school board appointees.

Why, just this weekend, I bumped into a teacher who reminded me of a remark made by Henry Bienan at the May 22 close-the-schools board meeting.

Bienen's one of Mayor Emanuel's appointees. He said that opponents of the school closings don't understand economics.

You know, I think we can all agree that getting lectures on economics from an appointee to the Chicago School Board is a little like getting tips on how to build a successful baseball team from the Cubs.

I mean, the school board basically signs off on all these TIF deals, like the aforementioned $55 million hotel/basketball arena arrangement.

Bienen's an old political science professor who went on to become president of Northwestern University before retiring in 2009. So please, Professor Bienen—since you know so much about economics . . .

What school of economic thought—be it created by Hume, Ricardo, Marx, Mill, Malthus or Adam Smith himself—advocates swapping $28 or so million for nothing?

Take your time before your answer, professor. Think of it as an open-book test. In fact, feel free to discuss it with your colleagues on the board. You might want to start with board president David Vitale. He's a banker—what else?—who used to be president of the Chicago Board of Trade.

I bet he knows a whole lot about TIF deals. CBOT's parent company—the Chicago Mercantile Exchange—swung a beautiful one a few years back worth $15 million.

He's also on the board of United Airlines, which has received over $20 million in TIF handouts down through the years—speaking of money the schools couldn't afford to lose.

So Professor Bienen—ask Vitale what he'd think of a minion who came to him with this proposal: "Hey, boss, how's about investing $28 million or so in a deal that will bring us zero return?"

You know, I think we'd all be better off if board members just fessed up and said: "I'm closing these schools cause the boss told me to close 'em. And I do whatever the boss says." As opposed to trying to concoct legitimate justifications.

Yes, it's going to take awhile to get over this.

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