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An open letter to Chicago Public Schools' new CEO

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Welcome to the Chi, Mr. Superintendent. As I understand it, you're everything mayor-elect Emanuel wants in a schools CEO—tough, brash, and eager to beat the crap out of teachers. Rock on!

In fact, the mayor-elect loves you so much he just refers to you by your nickname—calls you JC, you know, like you walk on water.

"JC is a communicator and a collaborator," Emanuel said, touting your three-year stint as schools superintendent in Rochester, New York. "JC has also made politically difficult decisions in order to put students first. He is not afraid of tough choices. That is what Chicago needs today."

We'll see. But, Mr. Superintendent, there's one choice you definitely won't get to make. It has to do with how to spend hundreds of millions of property tax dollars that should be going to your cash-starved schools.

You see, in Chicago we've got this thing called the tax incrementing financing program, which diverts at least $250 million a year from the schools and turns it over to the mayor.

I've got a feeling that, as much as he likes you, the mayor-elect neglected to tell you about the TIFs. So let me help you with a little lesson your Chicago predecessors—Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, and Ron Huberman—learned long ago.

When it comes to being the big man at the school board, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want—closing schools, firing teachers, rewriting curriculum, doling out contracts to your favorite charters—so long as you don't touch the TIFs. In fact, you'd be better off not even knowing how the program works. That way you can claim plausible deniability—the "Oh my god, you must be kidding!" defense—in the event that voters, feds, aliens from Mars, or anyone else ever gets around to holding the powers that be accountable for this ongoing scam.

No need to bore you with all the gory details about the TIF program. Just think of it as a Rube Goldberg contraption through which property tax payers in areas designated by the mayor feed you their tax dollars, you in turn feed them to the mayor, and he in turn feeds them to whomever he wants—zillionaire commodity traders, beer companies raking in the profits, downtown developers, you name it.

The program is supposed to be reserved for the city's poorest areas. But the laws governing it are conveniently riddled with loopholes, meaning that any creative—or powerful—mayor can get around the petty hang-ups.

You may hear murmurs about a fledgling movement in the state general assembly to reform the program, but I don't think your boss, the mayor-elect, will join it. Why should he? The program has worked well for the old mayor—the Daley fellow you may have read about. The other taxing bodies—the parks, county, the school system you get to run—give him their money and he gets to spend it.

At last count, TIFs collected more than $500 million a year in property taxes, roughly half of which comes from the schools.

Under Daley, the city occasionally tapped the TIFs for money to build new schools, at which point grateful school officials fell to their knees and said: "Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for allowing us to spend a fraction of the money you took from us."

By the way, that's your job now—the falling-to-the-knees part. I think you'll be hard pressed to do it better than Vallas, Duncan, or Huberman, but the mayor is going to want you to give it the old college try.

Now you might ask yourself: Why would I, or any Chicago Public Schools official, agree to fork over $250 million of desperately needed property tax dollars—especially now that the system is about $820 million in the red? Good question—one that your predecessors knew enough not to ask. The answer is that you're not the boss—the mayor is. And the faster you learn that the longer you'll last around here.

I can understand if you find this confusing. There's really nothing like the Chicago TIF program anywhere in the free world. Yes, there are TIFs in other states, including New York. But your home state bars schools from sending money to the TIF kitty. They can't do it even if they want to. What a funny concept: forcing schools to spend their money on schools.

If, for instance, the mayor of Rochester wanted to create a TIF district in one of the wealthiest corners of town to funnel tax dollars to one of the wealthiest operations in town—as Mayor Daley did when he sent $15 million to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange—that's his business. But he'd only be able to take the handout from the city's share of tax dollars. New York law prevents him from adding school dollars to the mix. In Chicago, the law's just the opposite: schools have to give up their money, whether they want to or not.

That brings me back to the fledgling reform movement I mentioned earlier. A bunch of superintendents from other districts in Illinois have joined with housing activists and teacher unions to try to change the law. They want to give school districts the right to opt out of TIF districts and keep their share of property taxes for themselves.

You might wonder: Well, why can't I join that movement?

The answer is that the other superintendents are appointed by school board members who are elected by voters—that is, they don't owe their jobs to one all-powerful Supreme Being, or even to a mayor who acts like one.

As you know, in Chicago the mayor appoints members of the board of education and they hire whomever he wants as schools CEO. In short, the mayor controls everyone and everything. In fact, the board of education is so obedient that the seven sitting members agreed to resign voluntarily so Emanuel could appoint seven replacements.

Not that it would matter. I'm completely confident that the current bunch on the board would happily go along with just about any idea—idiotic or not—that Mayor Emanuel came up with. Just like they did for Mayor Daley.

Board members include former employees of the Daley administration as well as consultants and lawyers from firms that do work for the city. They're not the type to rock the boat with critical thinking, or any kind of thinking, even if it means looking the other way while the mayor takes a few million here and there and hands it over to commodity traders. Not that there's anything wrong with commodity traders.

Anyway, if you want to know more about the TIF reform legislation, call Bob Palmer, policy director of Housing Action Illinois (312-939-6074). He'll tell you all about it. On the other hand, if you want to advance your career in this town, forget everything I just told you.

Remember: To prosper in Chicago, all you need to do is kick teachers and suck up to the mayor. So repeat after me: Teachers bad, mayor good. Don't worry—you'll get the hang of it with practice.

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