Thursday, May 23, 2013

During school-closing vote, Mayor Emanuel is heard but not seen

Posted By on 05.23.13 at 03:31 PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel: see you sometime?
In the months before the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 schools next year, thousands of teachers, parents, and students pleaded for their schools to stay open during hearings and protests.

Journalists, meanwhile, tried to figure out if any of the shifting explanations for the plan were actually based in fact, since it was originally presented as a way to save money, then to improve school performance, then to cut the dropout rate. The answer: not exactly.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel didn't attend any of the public hearings and was on a ski vacation when the closing list was released in March. Most recently, in the days leading up to the final decision, he largely avoided the public and the media.

In case you missed it, here's the schedule he kept in the week before the board's vote:

Wednesday, May 15: The mayor gives a speech to Chicago Police Academy graduates who will fill some of the openings in the police force, which is down about 250 officers since Emanuel took office. A couple hours later, the mayor makes remarks before a performance by the Chicago Children's Choir.

He does not speak to the media after either event.

Thursday, May 16: Mayor Emanuel announces plans to spend $125 million in public funds on a new arena and hotel complex near McCormick Place. This includes about $55 million in tax increment financing money, half of which would go directly to the schools if it weren't siphoned off into the TIF program.

The TIFs were created to spur economic development in hard-hit communities. But most TIF funds have gone into affluent areas downtown, and new city data show the amount spent on neighborhood investment has been declining under Emanuel, from about $250 million in 2010 to $190 million in 2011.

Friday, May 17: The mayor addresses a lunch gathering of Arts Alliance Illinois in the grand ballroom of the Hilton Chicago. He does not speak to the media.

Saturday, May 18: According to the mayor's press office, "There are no public events scheduled at this time."

Sunday, May 19: "There are no public events scheduled at this time."

Monday, May 20: And once again: "There are no public events scheduled at this time."

But in the afternoon, Emanuel's office issues a press release stating that he stopped by the National Restaurant Association Hotel Motel Show.

Meanwhile, it's also the first day that the south half of the Red Line is shut down for five months of construction. When it's clear there aren't any catastrophes, Emanuel swings by a Green Line station to tout the project.

That evening, his friend, donor, and meeting partner Ken Griffin tells a group of business leaders that Emanuel's performance has been "lackluster" since taking office. Griffin, the leader of a hedge fund, says the mayor has been too timid and should close at least twice as many schools as he's considering.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013: In a dimly lit warehouse at 39th and Ashland, Emanuel holds a press conference to announce several previously announced city construction projects. But the first question from the media is about the school closings: What do you say to parents who wonder why dozens of community hearings were held if you're going to close their schools anyway?

Emanuel is ready. He notes that at one point the list of potential closures included 300 schools before being whittled down to 54. He stresses that the current dropout rate—above 50 percent for black males—is unacceptable. By extension, he suggests, anyone who opposes the closing plan must not be interested in addressing the dropout problem.

"The goal is to make sure every child has a high-quality education," the mayor says.

Another reporter wonders if this will be a political problem for the mayor if he runs for reelection in 2015.

The mayor is prepared for that question too. "I will absorb the political consequence so our children will have a better future."

But why do you need to close 54 schools at once?

"We went from a list of 300 schools down to 54," the mayor says, in case anyone's forgotten from when he said it five minutes earlier.

What about the evidence showing that most of the schools set to receive new students aren't any better than the ones that will be closed?

The mayor smiles and walks out.

That evening word is leaked to reporters that Emanuel and his aides have decided to spare some schools—four of them. That leaves 50 to be shuttered.

Wednesday, May 22: The mayor's press office sends out notice: "There are no public events scheduled at this time."

Press aides say the mayor spends the day in his office, though he sends one of his aides to attend the school board meeting. "Another set of eyes," Tarrah Cooper tells the Sun-Times.

The meeting is dominated by impassioned testimony and often-fiery protests from opponents of the closing plan. But after five hours, the school board—made up of Emanuel appointees—uses a procedural motion to confirm the closing of 50 schools. "We have listened," insists schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

At ten to five, the mayor issues a written statement: "I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future."

Thursday, May 23: Mayor Emanuel speaks at a forum on U.S.-China relations in the grand ballroom of the Peninsula hotel. "There will be no media availability," his press office announces.

Friday, May 24: "There are no public events scheduled at this time."

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