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Frugal to a Fault

The Park District focuses on the many at the expense of the few.

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For about four years Jennifer Liu ran a highly regarded youth drama program at Holstein Park. Then one day last month she quit--the latest victim of budget cutbacks the Park District says don't exist.

"There are so many lies and distortions coming out of the Park District," says Liu, echoing what lower-level Park District employees have been saying privately for months. "They order budget cuts and say they haven't ordered them. They cut programs and say they haven't cut them. After a while you can't believe what they say."

Liu is the sort of hometown success story the Park District likes to brag about. She grew up in Rogers Park, graduated from Lane Tech High School, and in 1997, at the age of 19, went to work at Holstein, which is at 2200 N. Oakley, just east of Western. "I had taken some drama classes at Holstein when I was a kid, so you could say I was coming home," she says. "I had a lot of ambition for building a program."

The job she took was a year-round part-time position. Every week she worked 25 hours (later increased to 35) for about $11 an hour (eventually increased to about $12), and she received no benefits. "I worked way more than the hours they paid me," she says. "Anyone who runs a theater program will tell you you have to put in a lot of hours if you're going to do it right."

As part of her job, she ran Holstein's after-school youth drama program and was part of its summer camp. She also directed community productions featuring adults and children. "I loved those productions," she says. "I did everything. I built the sets, I made the costumes, I auditioned the actors and directed the shows. I'm not complaining--I loved it."

In 1999 she put together an intensive performing-arts camp for grade-schoolers. To get in, students had to audition--though anyone who did generally got in--and pledge to dedicate six hours a day, three days a week to a rigorous ten-week program. "This was not just slapping together a big talent show in a week--this was a real class," says Liu. "The students understood that they were going to work and learn--that's why they had to audition. We wanted them to take it seriously, the way soccer players would take it seriously if they were trying out for a traveling all-star team.

"I had the kids doing all sorts of exercises and drills. They did productions and monologues and a few short plays. We charged them $110 for the program. We were giving city kids an affordable alternative to the higher-priced classes the private companies offer."

"Jennifer's energy is phenomenal--she threw herself into this stuff," says Juan Elias, whose 11-year-old son, BJ, has been a student in the program since it began. "My son loved it. He still loves it. It gave him confidence and discipline--all the things you want an art program to build."

Liu continued the camp last summer. "I was working 50-hour weeks," she says. "Why? Because I loved building a community theater. I loved having those kids perform in festivals and hearing the ovations they got. I wanted to make this a full-time gig. I wanted Holstein to have a citywide reputation for theater."

But at the end of last summer Alex Zamora, the supervisor at Holstein, gave Liu some bad news. "He said not only were they not going to make me a full-time employee, but my hours were going to be cut from 35 to 20 hours a week," she says. "He said, 'Don't take it personal. It's not just you. All the part-time employees are getting their hours cut. It's one of those unilateral budget cuts that comes from the top.'"

At the time the Park District was continuing to spend funds on Mayor Daley's costly "beautification" program, outfitting parks with expensive planters, wrought-iron fences, and, in the case of Holstein, new poolside furniture. "It's ridiculous to cut programs in order to put up fancy fences and potted plants," says Liu. "As you can imagine, I was upset. I had devoted so many hours to Holstein. I thought I deserved more. My parents said I should just quit."

Instead, she says, she worked out a deal with Zamora. "I told Alex, 'I'll stay on at 20 hours for the school year, but come the summer I want to go back to 35 hours when I run the camp.' He called his supervisor [Elizabeth Garza]. Then he told me that Garza had told him I could have 30 hours a week for this summer. So I stayed. In retrospect, I probably should have quit, but you know how it is. You fall in love with the program and the kids. I guess I'm naive."

On Friday, June 15, just three days before the camp was to open, Liu says, Zamora gave her more bad news. "He said he had just talked to Garza and my hours had not been approved for the summer. I was shocked. He said, 'I'm sorry, but you're going to have to stick to 20 hours a week.' I said, 'That's impossible. You know how many hours I put into this.' His response was that the program's going to run with or without me. I was put in a lose-lose situation. So I said, 'That's it--I quit.'

"It was not this big, dramatic moment--I wasn't exactly walking out in defiance. I was a mess. I was crying. All those years of blood, sweat, and tears had been destroyed. I felt I had no choice. I could not work 50 hours a week for 20 hours of pay. And yet I felt guilty and horrible. God, it was awful."

Four days later 17 kids showed up for theater camp. "Alex brought them into his office and told them that Jennifer had quit," says Elias. "He tried to sugarcoat it--you know how adults break bad news to kids. He told them that she wanted to move on and pursue her acting career. What crap."

The theater-camp kids were then put into the regular camp, says Elias. "They do swimming, they go on field trips, they bring in a dance teacher to teach them modern dance. It's fine, but it's not what they had. Do you understand? They had an outstanding drama camp, and they let it go--for what? The difference between 20 and 30 hours a week in Jennifer's salary? I mean, it's crazy. They're watching their nickels and their dimes, and they're destroying all the things that are good--things that benefit the kids."

Elias decided to make a fuss. "I didn't want to see the camp just die," he says. "I think it's important for the Park District to promote theater. I saw all the good things it did for my son. There's so much emphasis on sports. Don't get me wrong--I love sports. But the parks should be for other things too. They have extensive community theater in the suburbs. Why can't we have them in Chicago?"

In late June, Elias met with Garza. "She said, 'There's nothing we can do--Jennifer decided to resign, and we are honoring her request.' I said, 'That's not completely true--she only resigned because her hours were cut.' Garza said, 'There's no need for a full-time drama instructor at Holstein.' I said, 'OK, well, where's the closest one?' And she said, 'Well, there's one in Austin and another one at Indian Boundary Park up in Rogers Park.' I said, 'What about our region?' She said 'The data shows it's not warranted.' I'm thinking, 'Data? What data?' Suddenly there's data. They never told us anything about data. Where do they get this stuff? I said, 'Show me the data.'"

A few days later, Elias said he met with Garza's boss, a regional director named Cynthia Moreno. "It was more of the same--like pounding my head against a bureaucratic wall," he says. "She kept talking about the data. She promised to show me the data. Here it is, three weeks later, and guess what? I'm still waiting to see that data."

Zamora didn't return a call for comment. But other Park District officials say there's just not enough interest to justify more than 20 hours a week for a drama instructor at Holstein. "Only 12 kids registered for Jennifer's theater class," says Art Richardson, operations manager for the district's central region. "We were able to recruit five other kids to sign up. That means that only 17 kids registered."

Richardson also says that Liu offered a second drama class called play production. "There were no applicants for play production--none. The demand was not there, so what could we do? If there were 100 kids signing up, we'd have to take a look at that type of interest. But we can only go on what the community wants. We service a very large community. We work very hard to satisfy the needs of as many people as possible. But in this case, the numbers only justify what we had allotted--three six-hour classes, or 18 to 20 hours a week. We explained that to Jennifer. There was little we could do about Jennifer, given that she resigned. We didn't ask her to leave. We didn't fire her. She left voluntarily."

Richardson says that the Holstein Park drama class continues. "The program is moving forward--it has not missed a beat," he says. "They have been meeting since June 19th. They will put on a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk on August 26 at the Bucktown art festival--show time is 2 PM if you want to come. We've been running the camp with some volunteers. We have a dance instructor who comes in from the Zephyr dance company. And the supervisor [Zamora] helps out. I've talked to Mr. Elias, and I told him that we would not abandon the program.

The show must go on, if you'll allow me to coin a phrase."

Richardson, like other officials, contends that in general the Park District has been "able to save money without compromising any programs." Asked about the new landscaping, fences, and furniture, he says, "I believe that most people are pleased with the improvements we've made at the parks. At Holstein people were asking for new furniture by the pool. We met a demand. People should not have to sacrifice instruction for aesthetics. We are giving them both."

His explanations don't satisfy Liu or Elias. "I can't believe he gave you that line about the so-called play production class," says Liu. "There was never any such class. It was just Zamora's way of justifying my hours. When I told him that I spent more than 20 hours a week buying materials and building sets to put on plays, he said, 'What you should do is create a class called "play production."' I said, 'That's absurd. What am I supposed to do, take the kids to Home Depot with me?' So they created a class I had no intention of teaching--and then they hold it against me when no one signs up. Well, of course no one signed up--it was a nonexistent class. It's just the same old stupid bureaucracy giving you the same old runaround I've been getting for years. They always talk about numbers. I'm talking quality--and they're talking quantity. This is not about filling up a gym with 100 kids and then throwing out a ball."

As for the production of Jack and the Beanstalk, Elias says they'd better get going: "They told you they're going to put on that play? What a joke. They haven't cast that play, let alone started rehearsals. They're just giving you the spin. They're jacking you around, like they jacked me around and like they jacked Jennifer around. They play their little games, and meanwhile we don't have any theater in our park."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martin Lueders.

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