County board prez: Why are we closing schools and packing the jail?

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Cook County board President Toni Preckwinkle: Chicagos school closings plan is a terrible idea
  • Ting Shen/Sun-Times Media
  • Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle: Chicago's school closings plan is a "terrible idea."
As the top official in Cook County government, Toni Preckwinkle didn't have any formal say in the decision by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his education team to shutter 54 Chicago elementary schools.

But she does have a few thoughts on the matter. Like: What are they thinking?

"I talked to a member of the school board that I knew and said what a terrible idea I thought it was," Preckwinkle told me in an interview. "You know, schools are community anchors. They're social centers. They're part of a community's identity. And often kids go half a dozen blocks and they're in different gang territory.

"The closings are going to take place almost entirely within the African-American community, and given the problems we already have with violence, I think it's very problematic."

Preckwinkle, the county board president, wasn't just venting. The county oversees the local criminal justice system, and she's made a priority of reducing the number of people caught up in it—along with the cost to taxpayers. I had stopped by her office to discuss the recent news that the population of the county jail has surged despite her goals. It was disturbing how smoothly the conversation shifted to school closings.

On Thursday, after months of closure threats, Chicago Public Schools officials released a list of 54 schools that will be shut down. The communities they serve are already struggling with foreclosures, disinvestment, and crime. About 30,000 students will be affected.

Parents, residents, and aldermen across the city have fought the closing plan since it was first floated. Though schools officials held a series of neighborhood hearings and solicited community input, Preckwinkle said they couldn't have paid that much attention to what they were told. "They enlisted local people to help them figure out what to do," she said, "and then they ignored them."

Preckwinkle also questioned the recent declaration by Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy that cops would be able to protect children crossing gang boundaries. "I don't know how the superintendent can say he's going to keep all the kids safe. I don't know what possessed him to say that."

Even more troubling, Preckwinkle said, the closings appear to be part of a broader plan.

"I talked to somebody the other day I've known for a long time who's in the public school system. Her view was that things were bad and getting worse, and she wondered whether there was a deliberate effort to weaken the public schools in order to make the case stronger for charter schools and contract schools.

"And that is just so demoralizing. If somebody who's in middle management in the public schools thinks there's a deliberate effort to weaken and destroy our schools—yeesh."

A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman didn't respond directly to Preckwinkle's comments, but officials have argued that they need to shut down underused schools to help close a $1 billion budget gap. They say it's part of their ongoing effort to improve the quality of education in the district, where thousands of students drop out each year, many before they even reach high school.

"For too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools," schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a written statement.

What no one has disputed is that the state of the school district is closely related to the city's ongoing plague of violence. The school closings—like the shootings—are concentrated in areas with large populations of dropouts and ex-offenders who struggle to find legal work.

Meanwhile, Preckwinkle says one of the reasons the jail population has swelled recently is that Chicago police have responded to the violence with a huge increase in arrests, including for low-level, nonviolent crimes. Prosecutors are pursuing these cases even though most end up being thrown out.

She argues there's another way to fight crime. "We ought to invest a lot more in our public schools. You know, feed the kids breakfast, lunch, and dinner; have after-school activities; keep the schools open until nine o'clock in the evenings and on weekends; invest in things like the Boys and Girls Club and the Park District—I mean, everything, basically, to dramatically ramp up the investments in our children."

But even in Democrat-dominated Cook County, it's hard to imagine that happening. "I was at an event last week, a fund-raising event, actually, where somebody said, 'All my neighbors are Republicans—people who live on my block who I like, who wouldn't support the idea you were just promulgating,'" Preckwinkle recalled. "And he said the people on his block he knew would rather pay to keep somebody incarcerated than to support music lessons or soccer team memberships or basketball team uniforms for kids in poor neighborhoods.

"We've got in this country such distorted values. In the last 30 or 40 years we've invested all this money in our prison system, and our schools are starving for money."

And no, she says—she's not saying this in preparation for challenging Rahm Emanuel at the ballot box. "The other day one of my friends asked me this, and what I usually say is, 'No, I'm not running for governor, I'm not running for mayor, I'm not running for dogcatcher—I'm running for reelection for the job I've got.' He was trying to encourage me to do something else, and I said, 'I've only been in this job for two and a half years and there's a heck of a lot that needs to be done.'"

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