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A Study in Contrasts

A Wilmette middle school spends more than $14,000 per kid; Chicago gets ready to dole out $65 million to developers.

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One day a few weeks ago, I took a drive out to Wilmette to visit the Marie Murphy School, a public middle school not far off the Edens Expressway. My host was Bruce Cook, a sixth-grade teacher I'd met at a party. He had graciously offered to give me a tour of his school so I could see how the other half lived. I tried not to gape, but for a guy used to the barren impoverishment of Chicago's schools--even its highly regarded magnet schools--it looked like Shangri-la.

Marie Murphy has a large music room, filled with cellos, violas, violins, horns, you name it. A band room with keyboards, a multimedia room where kids get to make their own TV and computer projects, an art room filled with works in clay, watercolors, and oils. The kids take two electives every day--in art, music, drama. They stage Shakespeare and Sophocles and play Mozart and Beethoven and practice copying Magritte and Warhol.

The glistening gym, freshly mopped and waxed, is well lit and equipped with a large electronic scoreboard and bleachers. In the back there's a vast and verdant field, recently mowed and dandelion-free. Among the after-school offerings are volleyball, soccer, and basketball, and the teachers who coach are paid relatively well (up to $2,958 per sport) for their extracurricular efforts.

The school's totally wired, or rather wireless. You can get on the Internet from anywhere in the building. Each kid has a laptop, rented from the school for far less than the cost of buying one.

The teachers I met were energetic, friendly, and eager to show their stuff. They have a strong union, and they're protected by a collective-bargaining agreement that, among other things, keeps their salaries in the range of $39,423 to $94,968 and limits class size to 25. They take class size seriously in Wilmette. The parents have made it clear they do not want their children in overcrowded classrooms.

By contrast, in Chicago--oh, where do I start? Most schools don't offer one daily elective, let alone two. I don't know of any schools with WiFi (a call to the school board to check if there are any had not been returned at press time), and computers are frequently hand-me-downs, donated by corporations looking for tax write-offs. The coaches get paid about $350 per sport (I know, because I coached for about eight seasons) and many teachers donate their time to direct plays and recitals because there's no money to pay them. Many gyms are cramped, dusty and dimly lit, and most schools have no fields, just old concrete playgrounds.

As for class size, it's a constant struggle as central-office planners try to keep pace with changing demographics. Even some of Chicago's highly regarded magnets have upwards of 30 students to a classroom, and schools in rapidly growing southwest-side communities are running out of space. Gage Park High School is so overcrowded that last August principal Martin McGreal told residents he wasn't admitting any more students. How did the central office respond? McGreal was fired for insubordination: apparently he did not have the authority to cap enrollment. The school's still overcrowded, but they showed the old principal.

How does Marie Murphy School pay for its amazing facilities? There's some state aid and there are some fees (parents pay $125 a year for those laptops), but by and large the answer is property taxes. According to state records, the school spends $14,064 per student annually, almost all of it from property taxes. You see, Wilmette and the other communities served by Marie Murphy don't have tax increment financing districts robbing the schools blind.

Which brings us to the June 12 meeting of the Community Development Commission, the board appointed by the mayor to oversee the burgeoning TIF program. With all the other obvious advantages the North Shore has over Chicago, the way Chicago runs its TIF program makes things even harder for city kids.

As you should know by now, the TIFs were designed to use property tax dollars to subsidize development in poor, blighted communities that would otherwise attract no private investment. In reality the program's become a multi-billion-dollar slush fund that Daley uses to help well-connected developers build upscale projects in the pricier parts of town.

For instance: at the June 12 meeting the CDC recommended a $5 million handout from the recently created LaSalle Central TIF for Navteq, a navigation technology company that according to the Tribune is "one of Chicago's biggest technology success stories in recent years," with "sales climbing from $110 million in 2001 to $582 million last year." The money will help pay Navteq's expenses as it moves from one side of downtown (the Merchandise Mart) to another (100 N. Riverside Plaza, which became Boeing world headquarters after the city and state teamed up to give the aerospace giant $56 million in incentives in 2001).

After the CDC meeting, Mayor Daley hailed the deal, saying without the handout Navteq would have moved its 900 employees right out of town. And Navteq's CEO, Judson Green, hailed Daley, saying he was happy to stay in town 'cause he loves Chicago so much. As part of the deal, Daley and other officials pointed out that Navteq will contribute to the Wacker Drive economy. On the other hand, the move will have a negative impact on the area around the Merchandise Mart, so really, as is the case with so many TIF real estate subsidies, it's one step forward and one step back for the larger community.

Oh, and there's one other "benefit" to the deal: Navteq will donate $50,000 to a local charity chosen by the alderman, Brendan Reilly, of the 42nd Ward. I'm no mathematician, but I think taxpayers might be better off if Navteq kept the $50,000 and returned the $5 million.

At the same meeting the CDC also recommended a $58.8 million handout from the Canal-Congress TIF to a consortium of developers to build an 18-story tower on top of Union Station, featuring a 350-room hotel, 80,000 square feet of retail space, 610,000 square feet of office space, and 200 condos. Why the city wants to spend so much tax revenue building the tower is not at all clear. Demand's not great for commercial space in the area, and sales of new downtown condos were down 46 percent in the first quarter of 2007--the seventh quarterly drop in a row and the biggest of them all, according to the local real estate consulting firm Appraisal Research Counselors. Crain's Chicago Business has been reporting regularly on the glut and how it's causing developers to scale back or even scrap their plans.

Even if every unit at Union Station sells, the project won't generate any new taxes for the schools for years to come because it's in a TIF district. New property taxes in TIF districts don't go to the schools and parks--they go back into the TIF for the life of the TIF. The Canal-Congress TIF doesn't expire until 2021.

The developers can circumvent the city's 20 percent low-income housing set-aside law by making a $4 million contribution to the city's low-income housing trust fund. And they too will donate to a local charity of the relevant alderman's choosing--in this case $200,000 to whatever Bob Fioretti of the Second Ward likes.

At the meeting developer Hossein Youssefi, who's worked on the redevelopment of New York's Grand Central Terminal and D.C.'s Union Station, assured CDC members that he was immensely proud to give a "gift" to the city by building this wonderful tower. "Chicago is my home," he said. "I want to give something back to my city."

When it was all over, in the course of two and a half hours the CDC had recommended that some $65 million in property tax dollars be earmarked for upscale developments in upscale communities. If, as I do, you view TIF funds as money that should be going to taxing bodies like schools, parks, and libraries, then roughly half of that--$32 million--is money that's just been extracted from the city's education budget. Is that an oversimplification? Yes, but you get the idea. The CDC's recommendations go next to the City Council, whose approval is expected.

Keep in mind that these gargantuan handouts come on the eve of the second-installment property tax bill, which will hike taxes by up to 500 percent in Lawndale, Woodlawn, East Garfield Park, and other poor south- and west-side neighborhoods. Many low-income home owners will face the decision to sell their properties or go into debt to pay their taxes. Their taxes, if they can pay them, will go to fill the vacuum created by the city's 150 or so TIFs. Daley and his allies are like reverse Robin Hoods, taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

So there you have it. Wilmette spends its tax dollars on its children, while in Chicago we take money from our schools and funnel it to millionaires.

By the way, almost all of the students at the Marie Murphy School are scoring at or above state standards in reading, math, and science. Oh well. Like they say, you get what you pay for.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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