Checkmate!; Duncan to Senn: Stuff It | Essay | Chicago Reader

Checkmate!; Duncan to Senn: Stuff It 

Alderman Shirley Coleman has been trying for years to get King Richard II to ease up on people who get towed. This time she may finally have forced him into it.

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Checkmate!

Shirley Coleman, the quiet alderman who represents the 16th Ward, isn't known for getting into tussles with Mayor Daley. Yet she's introduced legislation that's forcing Daley to take a stand when he'd rather not, on the city's ticketing and towing policies. "I just think in these hard economic times we have to do something," says Coleman, who lives in Englewood. "The way we do it now is very hard on poor people."

This is the second time Coleman has introduced an ordinance that would give people more time to retrieve their towed cars before the city has them crushed. She first proposed the bill in 1997. But Daley was adamantly against it, and he had it killed in classic City Council style--it was sent to a committee and never came out.

A few months ago Coleman decided to try again. "I was hearing from so many different people," she says.

The city's policy is that if you accumulate three tickets your car can be booted. If it gets booted you have to pay off your tickets or it will be towed. If it's towed you have to pay not only the tickets but the towing and storage fees or it will be sold, or crushed and sold for scrap. If it gets sold the city won't even deduct the proceeds from your fees and fines--it just keeps dunning you.

This tough policy is intended to encourage people to pay their tickets fast. Obviously it's hardest on people who can't afford to pay the initial tickets. "Once you fall behind on those tickets, you can't catch up," says Coleman. "The law is the same for everyone. But a person with a credit card can get his car back by just paying off his bills. A person without a credit card or who's overextended can't do that."

In October, Coleman announced she was going to have a meeting on the matter in her ward on Saturday, November 13. She invited officials from the Department of Streets and Sanitation to explain their policy, and she sent announcements to the media. "We expected a pretty good turnout," she says.

She got a huge turnout. More than 200 people showed up, including reporters from the dailies and camera crews from all the TV stations. People were clearly responding to the embarrassing series of articles on the city's tow-truck operations that the Sun-Times began running in early November. The stories blasted United Road Services and its subsidiary Environmental Auto Removal, both of which have city contracts to tow and crush cars, for zealously enforcing the city's harsh policies. The articles included the same tales of woe Coleman had been hearing for years.

Daley was forced to comment. He angrily denounced the Sun-Times and defended the city's policies.

But as the story grew, the significance of Coleman's meeting and her ordinance also grew. She'd unintentionally put Daley in a box. "Shirley's got that legislation, and he doesn't know what to do," says one City Hall insider. "He can't avoid it. He has to do something."

This time around Daley can't risk trying to bury Coleman's bill. The last thing he needs is a City Council hearing with a parade of people telling how they've been hurt by the current policies. He wouldn't be able to cavalierly dismiss their stories, as he has the stories in the Sun-Times, because he'd look heartless.

At the same time he can't afford to soften the city's ticketing, booting, and towing policies. They're big moneymakers, bringing in millions of dollars a year--$140.6 million in 2003--for a city that's finding it hard to pay its bills.

In short, Daley has to look like he's doing something without actually doing much of anything. Behind the scenes he's already reached out to Coleman, letting her know that this time around he won't have her bill dumped into a council committee. He'll probably allow a watered-down version to pass.

What that version will be hasn't been hammered out. Coleman wants to extend the time people have to pay up before their cars get sold or crushed. She also wants to reduce the storage fees. On Monday, lo and behold, Streets and San officials proposed a plan that would extend the redemption period. They're even talking about letting people pay a part of their debt in installments. Most insiders figure Daley won't agree to lower the fees.

His father used to do something similar in the 60s and 70s with legislation independent aldermen introduced. Usually the old Mayor Daley had it buried in a committee, but once in a while he'd have his City Council flunkies rewrite and pass it to make him look good in the media.

The younger Daley knows he has to give a little if he wants the towing story to go away. "Daley understands you can't find gold in a silver mine," says one City Council aide. "So he might give the poor guy a bit of a break by extending the time he has to pay off his tickets. But he's not going to let up on the rest of the city, particularly in those yuppie wards--that's where the real towing money is. He wants to keep on towing those cars."

Duncan to Senn: Stuff It

On October 13, as part of his ongoing effort to stick a naval academy in Senn High School, schools CEO Arne Duncan mailed a letter to hundreds of parents and area residents explaining his side of the story. "Senn High School's current utilization rate is approximately 59%," he wrote. "The proposed Naval Academy would co-exist with Senn High School and would not diminish the scope of the educational programs currently available to Senn High School students."

Now it's not that I think school officials make up these numbers, but the previous week I'd walked through Senn for the October 15 article I wrote about the proposed academy--which is opposed by virtually all of Senn's students and staff--and I thought Duncan's 59 percent "utilization rate" seemed low. So on Wednesday, November 17, I spent the better part of three hours walking through Senn counting classrooms. I started on the third floor and made my way to the first, looking to see how many classrooms were empty and could conceivably be used more often if a naval academy took over a wing of the school.

I have to concede that Duncan was right. Sort of.

I counted 113 classrooms, of which 80 were being used when I went past. That is, they were filled with students. I did the math and found a utilization rate of approximately 70 percent.

How did Duncan and his planners arrive at 59 percent? I don't know, but I'd counted a total of 137 rooms at Senn. If you use that number and the 80 classrooms I saw with kids in them, the utilization rate is 58 percent.

"That's not fair," protests Fanny Clonch, the French teacher who served as my guide. That's because the 137 number includes the library, the loading dock, the health clinic, the auditorium, administrative offices, a book-supply room, two rooms under construction, two art rooms, several computer labs, a faculty lounge, and 22 small special-ed rooms, including one that was converted from a bathroom. Obviously, very few of these rooms, almost all of which were in use, could be converted to classrooms.

I found only two empty rooms that didn't seem to have classes scheduled in them (they were called meeting rooms). All of the other empty classrooms I saw had teachers assigned to them--their names and schedules were posted on the door. Clearly, for a good part of the day a teacher was using them. I just happened to walk by when they were at lunch or class wasn't in session.

So could Duncan fit 600 new academy students into Senn? It wouldn't be easy, especially if he continues to insist that the academy have its own separate wing. But if he's willing to significantly reconfigure the building, converting computer rooms, an art room, and the teachers' lounge into classrooms, and if he's willing to make all the teachers share classrooms, then I suppose he could do it.

But why would he want to? It would probably cost more than the $2.1 million the navy's promised to kick in to get the academy started. It would also take a school that isn't overcrowded at the moment and stuff it close to the limit.

It's the norm for teachers in suburban high schools to have their own classroom. It's a luxury in many city schools. Senn is less crowded than high schools such as Lincoln Park and Von Steuben, where few if any teachers have their own classroom and every classroom is used virtually every minute of the school day. Some teachers at Senn already share classrooms.

Overcrowding isn't always an insurmountable problem. Lincoln Park and Von Steuben are overcrowded because they're popular, and they're popular because they're good schools. But why create overcrowding if you can avoid it?

"You don't want to be as overcrowded as we are--it's not good for students or teachers," a teacher at Von Steuben told me. "We're not a good school because we're overcrowded. It's the opposite. We're good in spite of being overcrowded."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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