Huberman’s Miracle 

A sop to angry parents—and a slap at the teachers' union

I gotta give a shout-out to Ron Huberman for a masterful performance at his June 28 press conference.

Huberman, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, managed to drive a wedge between parents and teachers—or at least gave it the old college try—while dropping a not-so-subtle hint for the Chicago Teachers Union about what the future will look like if he and Mayor Daley continue their efforts to privatize the schools.

Huberman called the press conference ostensibly to announce that he'd somehow or other found some fat in the budget that would let him back off his threats to slash 2,700 teachers, jack up elementary school class size to as many as 37 students, and cut such popular programs as all-day kindergarten.

If you recall, he'd been saying he'd have to make those cuts at the start of the new school year in September—unless the members of the teachers' union would give up the 4 percent raise their contract promised them. It all came down to the teachers—give up your raises or we're cramming more kids into the classroom, because we've pared the central office budget to the bone.

But as I reported in April, hundreds of central office salaries, including Huberman's own, have been hiked in the last year. And he's continuing to hire new employees for the central office—he recently posted three positions in the office of Academic Enhancement, each of which pays up to $136,000 a year. And the Board of Education hiked its own allowance to cover travel, seminars, subscriptions, and other expenses.

And (you knew this was coming) Huberman and the board continue to look the other way as Mayor Daley diverts up to $250 million in property tax dollars from the schools to the tax increment financing program.

Predictably, the Sun-Times and Tribune both fell into line after the press conference, praising Huberman in editorials for central office cuts that he hadn't really made and calling on teachers to share in the spirit of sacrifice and give up that raise for the good of the kids.

As if, you know, the kids are really what all these machinations are about. What we're really looking at is a power struggle between Huberman's boss, Mayor Daley, and the teachers' union.

The problem for Huberman is that not everyone is falling in line. Most significant, the Raise Your Hand Coalition—a recently formed group of parents, many of them young mothers with kids just starting school—has begun holding protests and rallies, including a June 17 march of more than 100 parents on the mayor's office. They're demanding, among other things, that CPS no longer cede the property tax revenues that have been diverted into the TIF program, allowing CPO to spend that $250 million in the classrooms.

I can't say for certain what Mayor Daley told Huberman after all those parents left City Hall. But any savvy politician will tell you there's nothing more daunting than a chorus of riled-up moms and dads rallying around their children's education. And Daley's a very savvy politician.

Whatever that conversation was like, Huberman did a 180 and managed to find the $18 million in unspecified central office cuts he needed to keep from increasing elementary school class sizes. High school is another matter: Huberman says he still might have to up class sizes there, and I suppose it's only a coincidence that the loudest and most militant members of the Raise Your Hand group are elementary school moms. But Jonathan Goldman and Jill Wohl of Raise Your Hand tell me that they're not backing off their demand that CPS pull out of the TIF program. And they hope to meet with Huberman in the coming weeks.

As for the recalcitrant teachers: Huberman called on Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organizations, which operates nine publicly funded charter schools in Chicago. It was no surprise that Rangel would show up to help Huberman make his case. UNO is well connected to the Daley administration. One of its founders, Danny Solis, is now alderman of the 25th 22nd Ward, chairman of the council's zoning committee, and a key mayoral floor leader. Daley initially appointed Solis to his aldermanic position back in 1996.

In addition, Miguel d'Escoto, UNO's  senior VP, used to be commissioner of the city's transportation department. He's the son brother of Federico d'Escoto, who sits on UNO's board of directors and oversees D'Escoto Inc., a construction consulting firm that's received millions of dollars' worth of contracts from the Chicago Housing Authority, the Chicago Park District, the city of Chicago, and, yes, CPS. Veronica Alanis, another UNO board member, is the assistant director of operational administration for the Chicago Housing Authority vice president of development for the Chicago Transit Authority.

And Rangel himself was a leading cheerleader for Daley's unsuccessful efforts to bring the Olympics to town. UNO has received more than $1 million in city contracts since 2003, and Mayor Daley chaired its $50 million capital campaign to raise more money to build even more charter schools.

Rangel's attitude toward patronage and government was perhaps best expressed in an op-ed he wrote for the Tribune in 2006 in defense of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, Mayor Daley's chief get-out-the-vote operation, which is manned by city and county workers. "This is not to argue that HDO be free of criticism or even a direct challenge," Rangel wrote as HDO leaders faced federal corruption charges. "But these can hardly be arguments against building power through patronage. Quite the contrary, the success of HDO and its predecessors should be a defense of this brand of political empowerment in its purest form."

At Huberman's press conference, Rangel told reporters that the schools chief was right and that in these tough times teachers had to bite the bullet—for the good of the kids, of course—just as teachers in his charter schools were doing. "Our teachers understand the gravity of the situation," Rangel said.

Charter schools are privately run schools that receive public money, along with a waiver of many of the rules and regulations under which regular public schools must operate. For instance, they're largely nonunion—state law, in fact, prohibits their teachers from joining the Chicago Teachers Union. As a result, charter school teachers are not protected by the union contract. There's no set salary scale to guarantee them incremental annual raises, and most of them can be summarily fired. By and large, charter teachers make less than their CTU counterparts and have to pick up a greater share of their health and pension costs.

Now, you may think the future of public education in Chicago is best served by terminating tenure rights and paying teachers less and making them pick up more of their health and pension costs. Fine—pay them Walmart wages if you will. That's not the point. My point is this: it's highly unlikely that the rank-and-file teachers at UNO's charter schools had any say about "sacrifice" when Rangel announced he was freezing their salaries.

If he is freezing their salaries, I mean. Charter schools aren't governed by the same transparency obligations as regular public schools, even though they receive over 80 percent of their operating budgets from CPS. All regular schoolteachers, like central office staffers, have their salaries posted on a public payroll on the CPS website. We can see how much they make, and we can see if they got a raise by comparing this year's salary to last year's.

The charter teachers' salaries aren't listed on the site because technically they're not CPS employees—they're private contractors. So if Rangel says he's freezing their wages, we'll have to take his word for it. Not that I really doubt it. Actually, I'm more curious about the salaries of UNO's top administrators—like Rangel.

Their salaries aren't posted on the CPS website either. But in 2008 Rangel made $242,979, according to financial statements UNO filed with the IRS. Philip Mullins, UNO's CEO, made $158,480; Miguel d'Escoto made $157,915. Four other employees made more than $100,000. (I called and e-mailed Rangel for comment, but he did not respond.) Huberman makes only $230,000, and he oversees many more than just nine schools. I never thought I'd make the argument that Huberman's underpaid, but there you have it.

In retrospect, I can see why Huberman would be attracted to the charter school movement—more money for administrators, less money for teachers. What's not to love about that?   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.

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