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An activist's campaign for public schools and fair taxes lives on

Honoring the late Edna Pardo



When I met her, Edna Pardo was the person at the League of Women Voters who knew absolutely everything you had to know about property taxes and municipal finances in Chicago.

This was back in the early 1980s. I was green about Chicago—I certainly knew nothing about property taxes. I didn't own any property, so I hadn't seen a property tax bill, much less paid one.

I'm not sure who referred me to Edna. It was probably John McDermott, my boss at the Chicago Reporter. He was always sending me to the league's Loop office to interview one of its experts about local politics.

I do recall that Edna was exceedingly tolerant of my incessant questions, though I suspect I may have strained her patience more than once as I pestered her about something we'd already covered.

"OK, Edna, one more time—how do they calculate the EAV?"

That would be the equalized assessed value, and many of us are still trying to figure it out.

I'm thinking about all of this because Edna died in March at the age of 92, and her friends and family are planning to hold a tribute on May 31. That's fitting, since the issues she championed are very much relevant today.

She was born and raised in Yonkers, just outside New York City, and enrolled in New York University in 1939. After only one year in college, she dropped out to join the Communist Party. She was 19, it was the Depression, and she wanted to change the world.

"The thing about my mother is that she was very compassionate," says Victor Pardo, one of her sons. "People would walk by someone in need, but Edna never passed them. As my dad said, 'Edna always stopped.'"

After World War II she married Lou Pardo, a party leader in Indianapolis, with whom she had three children. This was, of course, at the height of the red scare.

"In Indianapolis a member of the Community Party had to register with the police," Victor says. "My parents didn't think they should have to do that. They went underground for six years. They changed their names. They came up with a new identity. I remember when I was very young we used to shelter people from the Communist Party who were on the run."

In the 1950s the Pardos came out from the underground. "They left the party, they registered with the IRS, they paid their back taxes. They moved on with their lives," says Victor. "I don't think they ever gave up on their ideals. They just realized they weren't going to achieve them through the Communist Party."

By then the family had moved to Chicago. Lou Pardo, a tool-and-die maker, became active in his local union. And Edna joined the local PTA and the League of Women Voters.

They moved to Austin on the far-west side and sent their kids to public schools. They stayed in Austin long after the neighborhood had changed from white to black, leaving only when they had to move to an assisted-living facility.

"My mother got involved in the whole issue of school finances," Victor says. "That was an overriding concern for the rest of her life."

Edna also sniffed out the scam of tax increment financing long before most people even knew what a TIF was.

In 1997 she wrote A Guide Through Chicago's Tax Maze, a 54-page handbook that pretty much tells you all you need to know about how local taxes are calculated and spent. Five years later, she wrote a second edition.

As she saw it, the big challenge facing government was how to fairly and equitably pay for the services everyone needs without crushing the people who can least afford them.

At the top of her list was public education. "Our ability to compete internationally depends on a universally high standard of education," she wrote in the first pamphlet.

The problem in Illinois—then as now—is that most school districts rely on property taxes. That means that the wealthier the town, the more money it has to spend on things like art and music.

The poorer the district, the more it has to scramble for basic supplies, like toilet paper.

"Where a child lives makes a big difference in what's available for his or her education," she wrote in 1997. "Wealthy residential communities can afford to pay higher local taxes to provide enriched programs for their children and they do."

She was both idealistic and realistic. She endorsed a graduated state income tax to pay for education, but she was realistic enough to know that elected officials would be reluctant to sign on.

"No one wants to take responsibility for tax increases, even when they are needed," she wrote. "As a result, we have developed a never-never-land kind of tax system, generally patchwork and more and more unfair and inadequate."

She wrote those words in 1997, but she just as easily could be talking about Mayor Emanuel's hodgepodge attempts to raise revenue by, among other things, putting speeding cameras all over Chicago.

She also sniffed out the scam of tax increment financing long before most people even knew what a TIF was.

"TIFs can wreak havoc on school funding," she wrote in 1997. "Many school districts are challenging what they assert is a loss of school funds going to pay for economic development costs for private businesses."

That continues to be the case, except in Chicago, where the school district remains firmly under the mayor's thumb. I have a feeling that Edna would be leading the charge against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to take tens of millions of tax dollars from the schools and spend them on a new basketball arena and hotel in the South Loop.

"My mom loved to try new things—she was very adventurous," says Victor Pardo. "The litany I heard growing up was, 'If you don't try it, how do you know you won't like it?'

"I'm a teacher of transcendental meditation. She gave meditation a try and loved it. She meditated roughly twice a day for the rest of her life."

After Edna died, Alderman Ed Burke, chairman of the City Council's finance committee, introduced a resolution honoring her. Ironically, Burke and Edna Pardo were on the opposite side of most local fights going back to the Council Wars of the 1980s. But after all this time, I guess it's a case of one budget master honoring another.

"Pardo's hard work, sacrifice, and dedication serve as an example to us all," Burke wrote.

Well said, Alderman Burke. For once, you and I agree.

The tribute to Edna Pardo will be May 31 at 1:30 PM at the United Electrical Workers Hall, 37 S. Ashland.

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