A couple weeks ago I wrote about how top administrators with the Chicago Public Schools, from CEO Ron Huberman on down, had budgeted themselves raises even as they threatened to lay off teachers, asked coaches to work for free, and cut sophomore sports to chip away at a deficit approaching nearly $1 billion.
I also reported that the district's chief spokeswoman, Monique Bond, said Huberman hadn't received a raise but wouldn't provide any documentation to back it up.
It's safe to say the CPS brass has read the story. Two days after it hit the streets, Bond called me. My story was wrong, she said—the district's top people didn't get raises.
OK, I said—if the salaries of the top brass went up, what's that called if not a raise?
She said she would be happy to explain—if I'd come to the central office at 125 S. Clark to talk about it in the presence of CPS budget officials.
I have to tell you: in all my years of hammering away at Mayor Daley's various budget machinations, I've never been asked to come in for a talk. But this story had clearly struck a nerve. Friends who work in the schools told me that it had been pinned to bulletin boards in faculty lounges in schools all over town. Teachers had forwarded it to one another. A link to the story was included in an e-mail blast from Chicago Teachers Union president Marilyn Stewart to her members.
So downtown I went. I kept thinking about the advice my friends had given me: Whatever you do, if you're offered a cup of coffee, don't drink it!
Bond met me on the ground floor and ushered me to a conference room on the fifth floor, where three officials were waiting: operations manager Jerome Goudelock, chief human capital officer Alicia Winckler, and CFO Diana Ferguson.
I sat down at the table. There was a long, awkward moment of silence. I asked what I could do for them, since they'd invited me there.
They told me they thought I would benefit from what amounted to my own personal budget briefing. Of course, since this was a meeting to clear things up, they placed a condition on the conversation: I could write about what they said, but the only person I could quote directly was Bond. As our conversation continued, Winckler and Ferguson did most of the talking, and Bond occasionally chimed in. Goudelock hardly said a word.
They didn't refute any of the facts I'd reported. But they also indicated that the source I'd cited was misleading.
Oh, I said—you mean the school district's official 2009-2010 budget?
With that, Winckler and Ferguson launched into an explanation of the budgeting process at a large public institution. I got a little impatient and cut them off. Yes, yes, I said—I know all of this. I've written about it many times before. A budget is basically a projection—an estimate of how much money the district is expected to take in over the course of a year and what it needs to be spent on. Think of it as a long list of priorities, with money earmarked to cover the most important things, like salaries for classroom teachers.
Correct? I asked them.
Correct, I was told.
Sometimes, I continued, the revenues fall short of projections and administrations have to make cuts or raise taxes. That's what the situation's been at CPS the last couple years.
"And we're making cuts," Bond said.
What they wanted me to know was that you can't depend on the budget to determine exactly how much the CEO or any other employee is making at any given time because it might have changed since the budget was put into place. And it might change again. Instead, they said, you have to look at the payroll for an up-to-date look at who's earning what.
Great, I said—show me the payroll.
To see that, Bond told me, I'd have to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
I pointed out the irony: the budget, which is reliably inaccurate, is posted online for everyone to see; the payroll, which is supposedly accurate, is removed from public scrutiny.
Winckler and Ferguson said they could see how people might be frustrated with the process. They said they were working to make it more transparent, though they couldn't say how.
Well, I said, tell me this: If Ron Huberman's salary rose from $204,000 to $230,000, how is that not a raise?
Because Huberman never made $204,000, Bond explained. From the moment he took the job in January of 2009, the board paid him $230,000. So no one can say he got a raise because he never made $204,000 to begin with.
OK, let me try a different track: The school board raised the amount of money allocated for the CEO from $204,000 to $230,000—correct?
So when the board hired Huberman, he was paid a higher salary than his predecessor had been making?
So why would the board give Huberman $230,000 at the height of a budget crisis if his predecessor, Arne Duncan, was making $204,000?
First of all, Bond said, Huberman won't make the full $230,000 because he's taking voluntary furlough days. Second, Duncan wasn't making $204,000 when he left.
But the budget says that's what the CEO was allocated for 2008-2009.
Yes, she said, but between August 2008, when the board passed that budget, and January 2009, when Duncan left to become President Obama's secretary of education, the board gave him a raise.
And when exactly was that?
Goudelock looked it up on his laptop and wrote the answer on a piece of paper: on September 1, 2008, the board raised Duncan's salary from $202,475 to $212,502. Incidentally, that was less than a week after the school board passed the 2008-2009 budget that listed Duncan's salary at $204,000.
So in the midst of the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression—when it was clear they would have to cope with declining property tax revenues—the board gave Arne Duncan a raise? Why?
"We weren't here," Bond said. "We can't comment."
We sat in silence, Goudelock, Winckler, and Ferguson looking at me, me looking at them. Bond responded to a text message on her cell phone.
To be honest, I almost felt sorry for them. They seemed like intelligent, well-intentioned people who probably wouldn't want to be caught uttering total nonsense. But they were also obviously team players and not about to deviate from the company line, especially with Bond in the room.
Tell me the truth, I pleaded, knowing full well that they wouldn't or couldn't. If we were having a cup of coffee at Starbucks, wouldn't you agree with everything I wrote?
They smiled—sort of.
My story had also pointed out that this year's budget increased the amount of money dozens of central office departments got to spend on things like magazine subscriptions, seminars, and travel expenses. So I asked them about that as well.
"That was under a previous board president," said Bond, referring to Michael Scott, who committed suicide last November. "The new board president, Mary Richardson-Lowry, is making extensive cuts."
So I can expect to see cuts in subscriptions and memberships reflected in the budget you pass in August? Along with the other millions of dollars in central office job cuts you claim to have made?
Absolutely, I was told.
By then we'd been talking for an hour. This is what I'd learned: Salaries had gone up, but they weren't really raises. And office allowances had gone up, but the guy responsible for that was no longer around. Arne Duncan had made more than any budget said he'd made, and in fact no budget can ever be counted on to provide an accurate representation of what anyone makes. And if some pain-in-the-neck reporter really wants to know what's going on, he should file a FOIA request.
Well, it's good to know where you stand.
I needed only one last thing: confirmation of everybody's full names and titles.
Ferguson gave me her business card, which included a work number and e-mail address—but then worried aloud that I might try to e-mail her. She reiterated that if I wanted any further information I would need to request it through Bond.
The other two didn't offer cards, instead writing their names, titles, and e-mail addresses on a sheet of paper.
I told Ferguson not to worry. I copied her name and title down on another piece of paper and handed her card back to her.
We exchanged friendly smiles but she made no move to give me the card again. And with that my personal budget briefing was over.
In case you're wondering, I didn't drink any coffee. Of course, they didn't actually offer me any. For all I know, coffee for visiting reporters was one of the first cuts made by Mary Richardson-Lowry. I'll be looking for it in next year's budget.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.