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Paul Vallas Responds


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To the editor:

Your June 5 article "Missing the Bus" managed to miss the point of our recent action to reduce busing costs. In focusing on the "chaos" in people's lives because their children would start school an hour earlier or 30 minutes later and on the supposed dictatorial nature of the decision, you have failed to tell the whole story.

At the heart of the story is the issue of choices. Choices on how best to spend the limited funds available to the Chicago public schools, choices by schools as to how to manage their busing services, and choices by parents on where to send their children to school.

My responsibility is to determine the best uses of our money. This means addressing the educational needs of all children, increasing learning experiences for students, and looking for ways to reduce noneducational expenses so we can increase educational services.

Our transportation budget is $100 million, the second-largest item in our budget. It is only reasonable and prudent for us to look at this expenditure and find ways of reducing it. Contrary to what you stated, I do not regard busing as "a colossal waste of money." I support special education, I support relief of overcrowding, and I support magnet programs.

Magnet schools serve an important educational need in Chicago. They give children the opportunity to receive an education that meets their special interests. Magnet schools are an acknowledgement of the diversity of academic interests in Chicago. We believe so strongly in the value of magnet schools that we are creating 32 new magnet high schools alone, which are designed to reduce the loss of students between 8th and 9th grades, now running at 4,000 students a year. These include 13 new international baccalaureate programs, 11 career academies, and 8 academic or college prep high schools (6 of which will be regional magnets). We are giving parents additional academic options and alternatives, regardless of race, income, or ethnic background.

I strongly reject any suggestion that I am trying to undercut magnet schools. These schools are not being shortchanged. They have benefited as much as the neighborhood schools through the Capital Improvement program, the after-school Lighthouse program, preschool programs, and the summer school program.

We have asked magnet schools to make only two adjustments. First, to draw 30 percent of their student population from children who live in the neighborhood beginning next school year. (Forty percent of the schools already meet this requirement.) It makes little sense to exclude children who live across the street from attending their neighborhood school. It also increases the community's support for the school, since parents now have a greater stake in it.

Our other change for magnet schools is to reduce busing costs. We have been running a "Cadillac" transportation program. Some children may ride 20 miles a day to get to and from school. They are on the bus for as long as three hours a day. The cost savings from bus pairing could be used to fund educational programs.

Bus pairing is not new to schools or parents. We decided to expand bus pairing in order to reduce transportation costs. The board of trustees has discussed this option for three years. Last year the board encouraged all schools to participate through a resolution. Fourteen schools have responded by changing their starting time from 9 AM to 8 AM. Beginning next September, bus pairing will be implemented citywide.

We informed principals so they would have three months to plan for the changes. We also gave them the option of finding other ways to cut busing costs. They could either voluntarily cluster with other schools to share buses, subsidize the buses out of their own discretionary money, impose a busing fee on parents, or find other ways to save money. More than half of the 80 schools initially scheduled for pairing found ways to reduce busing costs. The majority of the remaining schools changed to the early or late schedule.

I am amused by your suggestion that I'm trying to "slink out" of a bad decision by making deals or letting the matter drop. I firmly believe this was a good decision because it will benefit all students.

We anticipate saving approximately $4.4 million next year in busing costs. While you might deem this "a trifle," consider what $4-$5 million will buy: 50 more schools offering the after-school Lighthouse program; 5,000 students receiving technical training from the city colleges and other schools through our Project Excel; debt service on $60 million in new construction. Given that the lion's share of the budget is locked up for fixed expenses, we are forced to selectively make cuts in other areas in order to pay for more services in the classroom.

The early schedule does require parents to make some adjustments in their daily routine. It does not require children to stand on the corner at 6 AM to get to school at 8 AM. It does not force parents to endanger their children's safety on dark street corners. It might cause some parents to reconsider if their children are spending too much time on school buses or if they are riding long distances past perfectly good schools to reach that "special" school. It could lead parents to cooperate with one another so that children waiting for their school bus are supervised by an adult. Again, parents have choices they must make.

Incidentally, it is arrogant to think that magnet schools are the only thing keeping the middle class in the city. The fact is, thousands of middle-class people left the city because of the decline in the neighborhood schools. Attracting them back to Chicago requires good schools in every neighborhood.

The reporter stated that I did not respond to him for comment. This is not true. He did not contact me for my part of the story. Had he done so, I would have shared with him the information I am now obliged to share with you.

This administration has been, and continues to be, open in its decision making. We talk with everyone and we listen to everyone. We respond to what we hear, providing it is in the best interests of our students. We talk directly with school principals and with local school councils. This is both the democratic way and good management. Sometimes we might offend certain self-styled "reform" groups, who would prefer us to go through them to talk with schools. But so long as we are serving the needs of the children, we don't mind upsetting special interest groups.

Paul G. Vallas

Chief Executive Officer

Chicago Public Schools

Ben Joravsky replies:

Paul Vallas had every opportunity to share whatever information he wanted when I called him for comment seven weeks ago and left a detailed message with his press office. My phone calls were never returned.

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