As a new school year opened with talk of a teachers' strike and system bankruptcy, the leaders of Chicago Public Schools had a choice: pressure Mayor Emanuel to give desperately needed money to the schools, or make a cheery video that pretends all is well.
I suppose it'll come as no surprise that Forrest Claypool and Janice Jackson-the district's CEO and chief educational officer-went with option number two.
Guess they were too chicken to face the wrath of the terribly tempered Mayor Rahm by going after his TIF slush fund.
I'll get to the TIFs in a minute, but first, a few words about the district's priceless new infomercial, "CPS: Success Starts Here," released just in time for the start of the school year.
It's the Emanuel administration's first foray into filmmaking since the epic TIF flick of 2011. That movie's theme was "TIFs are complicated and you're dumb, so leave the details to us."
Not the soundest advice.
This five-minute video is a little like Rocky, with a swelling soundtrack and a feel-good story.
I guess that makes Jackson the up-and-coming contender and Claypool her crusty old ringman.
They even use that uplifting background music to underscore the heartfelt testimonials of parents, students, and teachers—well, OK, one teacher. At the end, each person looks at the camera and declares: "I am CPS."
Like we're all in this together. Like we're CPS too!
To watch Claypool and Jackson, you'd never know they'd clawed their way to the top of the bureaucratic heap, with all the wheeling and dealing that entails. Instead, they come across as selfless do-gooders as they offer up such observations as:
Claypool: "There's really fundamentally nothing more important than education."
Jackson: "I really do believe that public education is the most significant way to eradicate poverty."
Claypool: "We are here in the central office to support our principals and teachers who do the actual work in the classrooms."
"I'll never forget you Apollo—you're the best!"
Oh, wait, that was from Rocky IV. My bad.
Claypool utters my favorite line: "This year we're going into the school year with stability."
He makes that declaration with a straight face. Talk about great acting. You'd never know that he, Jackson, and the school board just laid off 1,000 employees, including 500 teachers. Or that they've cut special education. Or that the "balanced" budget they recently passed depends on state money they'll probably never get.
So it's really not balanced at all. Meaning, we can expect more cuts as the year rolls on.
Watching the video, you'd also never know that the parents and teachers who offer testimonials in the video come from schools like Talcott, Smyth, Steinmetz, Greely, and Ryder, which are facing anywhere between $150,000 and $1 million in cuts.
Or that there's probably going to be a teachers' strike in a matter of weeks. In fact, Mayor Emanuel and CTU president Karen Lewis, the two most important players in averting the strike, are curiously absent from the video.
I understand why CPS propagandists would ignore Lewis and the union. In general, the unofficial CPS line about CTU is: We love teachers, but hate the teachers' union. (Conveniently overlooking that it's a union of teachers, so you can't very well hate one without hating the other.)
Not sure why the Big Kahuna's name goes unmentioned. Maybe CPS head honchos want to pretend he doesn't exist either.
If so, I can relate.
Finally, you wouldn't know from the video that Claypool, Jackson, and Emanuel's seven school board appointees have been quiet as church mice as the mayor continues to divert tens of millions of property tax dollars that would otherwise go to the schools into his pet projects, courtesy of the tax increment financing program.
Yes, I finally made it to the TIF part of the story.
At the moment there's a TIF surplus ordinance in the City Council, proposed by Aldermen George Cardenas and Sue Sadlowski Garza. It would compel the mayor to itemize exactly how much unencumbered money he has in the TIF reserves—right now it could be more than $1 billion, according to activist Tom Tresser's count.
The ordinance would force the mayor to turn over surplus TIF funds to CPS every year that the district remains "financially distressed."
The mayor wants to keep that ordinance buried in the council's finance committee, even as Cardenas and Garza try to round up enough aldermen to vote it out.
Despite his starry-eyed innocence in the video, Claypool surely knows all about TIFs. He was Mayor Daley's chief of staff back in the 1990s, when the former mayor first implemented the scam.
Certainly Claypool and Jackson know about the Cardenas/Garza TIF ordinance. Garza showed up at the August 24 school board meeting to ask for their support.
They reacted to her comments with stony silence, like they didn't understand what language she was speaking.
Let me explain what's really going on here: Money means power, and TIFs represent the largest source of discretionary money the mayor has.
So Rahm's not about to voluntarily give up TIFs, no matter how many teachers get laid off in the process.
Look, I realize that the notion of central-office appointees standing up to Rahm is as fantastical as Star Wars. They're rubber-stampers whose first loyalty is and will always be to the man who gave them the job.
But if they really want to show that there's "nothing more important than education" or that "public education is the most significant way to eradicate poverty," it'll take more than a fantastical video. Instead, they'll have to summon the courage to tell the boss what he doesn't want to hear: Stop wasting property taxes on stupid stuff and start spending more of it on the schools.
If they do that, they can make the most inspirational movie since Adonis "Donnie" Johnson went the full 15 rounds with Pretty Ricky Conlan in Creed—speaking of great Rocky flicks.
Until then it's just more of the same old BS. v