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Off Track

Chicago Public Schools eliminates the already skimpy pay for assistant track coaches. We have some alternate suggestions.

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In January, John Caldow was inducted into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, a testament to his 40-plus years of coaching excellence at DePaul University and other high schools across the city.

Among the public high schools he coached at were King, Jones, and Calumet. And in 2006, after he'd retired from teaching phys ed in some of those same schools, he went to work at Whitney Young as an assistant track coach to Young's head coach, Bob Geiger—a four-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week, five-months-a-year commitment for which Caldow was paid the whopping sum of $2,500.

The Board of Education—the governing body for the Chicago Public Schools—ought to give him a medal. Instead they're cutting his pay to nothing.

"I figured it out and it came out to about $2.87 an hour," he says. "How are you supposed to get people to coach if you don't pay them anything?"

Good question. And I can't tell you what the official answer is since Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools, has not returned my calls.

Here's what I do know. Facing a budget deficit of at least $800 million, CPS sports director Calvin Davis sent an e-mail to school athletic directors in early February announcing that the central office had decided to save money by cutting out pay for assistant high school track coaches, including the people who coach freshmen and sophomore squads.

The announcement didn't say how much money would be saved. But let's take a generous guess. There are about 150 high schools in the city, including all the small schools within schools. So if every single school has a track team (which they don't) and every team has three assistant coaches (which they don't) then we're talking about maybe $1.1 million. This is out of an annual CPS budget of about $6.8 billion—in other words, a drop of water in an ocean.

Of course, given the district's massive budget hole, it's probably hard for some people to get worked up over the track and field program while schools CEO Ron Huberman is talking about laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, and scaling back special ed. I guess I have a bias toward track. My daughters ran it. I coached it. I love watching it. And I know firsthand how meaningful it can be for kids—and not just the superstars—who are looking for a way to have fun, keep out of trouble, and stay in shape.

Ironically the cuts come as educators across the country are talking about the need to expand recreational activities for teenagers. The New York Times recently ran an article about two new studies showing that "team sports can result in lifelong improvements to educational, work and health prospects" for girls. And Michelle Obama has launched a nationwide campaign to fight obesity by getting more kids to exercise regularly.

On the local level, it was only a few months ago that corporate, civic, and political leaders—starting with Mayor Daley himself—swore up and down that their efforts to bring the 2016 Olympic games to Chicago were all about ushering in a new age of sports and fitness in public schools and parks. In fact, they told us, the citizenry would benefit from the Olympic bid even if we didn't get the games, because civic and corporate Chicago were now committed to developing more recreational opportunities for ordinary youth.

But that was then. The new cuts will make it harder for public high schools to sustain viable track programs. Some lucky schools may be able to get parents to kick in for coaches' pay, or at least to cover their gas money. Schools with the poorest students—the ones with the most to gain from extracurricular activities like track—will of course be hit the hardest.

Keep in mind that the state of track and field in the public schools was already abysmal. As I've reported before, the district doesn't have a single indoor track—runners train in school hallways during the winter—or any plans to build one. It's no wonder so few public school kids master the techniques of the shot put or clearing a hurdle, much less the more specialized activities like high jumping or pole vaulting.

Huberman, who used to be CTA president and Mayor Daley's chief of staff, has said he has no choice but to cut sports programs since he's pretty much trimmed all the fat from the CPS budget.

I found that a little hard to believe. So I went through the budget myself to see if I could help.

Let's start at the top. The office of the CEO has a staff of eight and a budget of $1.1 million.In addition, the office of the CEO's chief of staff has another seven employees and a budget of $1.5 million. If the district is desperate to make cuts, how about taking a knife to the bureaucracy before going after programs for kids? When Huberman took over the schools last year he brought with him five former CTA and City Hall employees, each making at least $120,000. Among them was Barbara Lumpkin. Once described by the Sun-Times as the "City Hall equivalent of a utility infielder," Lumpkin had previously served Mayor Daley as city comptroller, budget director, city treasurer, and chief procurement officer. She's now making $154,000 as Huberman's deputy CEO for External Affairs, which has a staff of 49 and a budget of $5.6 million. Her job is to raise money from the business community.

The schools could obviously use more money. But it's funny that while they expect coaches to work for free, they can't find any retired business leaders willing to volunteer their time to raise money for the cause of education. When the mayor decided he wanted the Olympics, he managed to recruit—or strong-arm—every civic bigwig in town for the effort.

Where else can we cut? Well, there's the CPS law department. Though it has 80 employees and an annual budget of about $9.5 million, somehow or other Huberman needed to fork over another $100,000 to former federal prosecutor William Jones Jr. to investigate whether school board members and officials had improperly charged artwork, limousine rides, high-priced meals, liquor, and other expenses to their school district credit cards.

Mayor Daley defended the investigation and the money for Jones, telling reporters, "You want to protect taxpayer money." I guess you gotta spend money to protect it.

But he didn't explain why they had to hire Jones when CPS already had an in-house inspector general with a staff of 17 full-time employees and an annual budget of $1.9 million. You figure with all those lawyers and inspectors they'd have enough people to investigate the credit-card expenditures.

Then again, there's no shortage of things to investigate within CPS. In 2008 Lamont Bryant sued the district, alleging he was improperly fired from his job as Marshall High basketball coach after alleging financial improprieties among school administrators. Last year Bryant and the school board settled, with the board agreeing to pay Bryant $500,000. Well, at least one coach is getting paid.

The school district could also save the schools some money by cutting back on its spending to lease cars. According to a recent Chicago Tribune story, the district "spends more than $800,000 a year for leased vehicles, including gas and maintenance." Huberman himself gets the use of two cars: a 2009 Ford Escape (at least it's a hybrid) that costs $800 a month and a Crown Victoria that leases for about $1,000 a month.

Huberman and his aides also might want to look at cutting back on contracts to outside vendors (about $696.6 million has been set aside for that) and trimming a few of the extraneous central office divisions, like the Office of Autonomy. I'm not sure who it's autonomous from—certainly not Huberman or Mayor Daley—but it has seven employees and an annual budget of $1.4 million.

That's the division that's in charge of overseeing schools that are doing so well they're independent from school board oversight. Which raises the question: if they don't need oversight, why is there an office to oversee them?

If Bond ever calls me back, I'll ask her that too. And by the way, her Office of Communications has a budget of $2.2 million and 13 employees, none of whom apparently do any communicating—at least not with me.

And then of course there are the tax increment financing districts. (Regular readers had to know they weren't going to get through this column without hearing about them.) When people see the CPS line item on their property tax bill, they might reasonably think all the money in that line item is going to the schools. But in fact a good chunk of it goes to the TIF slush funds controlled by the mayor, which aren't itemized on property tax bills. Last year alone, the TIFs siphoned about $250 million in property tax dollars out of CPS's supposed share.

Just once I'd love to see some school official tell the mayor to keep his cotton-picking hands off their property tax money.

But it's not going to happen anytime soon. Huberman and board president Mary Richardson-Lowry both serve at the pleasure of the mayor.

Richardson-Lowry knows all about the TIF program. Before Daley named her to the board, she was chairman of the Community Development Commission, the group of mayoral appointees that oversees TIF deals.

In recent years, the CDC has approved $35 million in TIF money to help United Airlines move into new offices downtown, $6 million to help MillerCoors do the same, $8 million to lure the French Market to the Ogilvie Transportation Center, and—oh, you get the point.

You could hire a whole lot of assistant track coaches with that money.

But the mayor and his aides have other priorities. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, let the track coaches eat brioche. They can buy it at the French Market.   

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

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