The Endangered Watchdog | Politics | Chicago Reader

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The Endangered Watchdog

Strapped for cash, yet another of the city's independent advocacy groups is foundering.

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Last year the school advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education threw a party celebrating its 20th year of "parental advocacy and action." Earlier this month it sent out a fund-raising letter breaking some bad news: PURE's at the end of its rope.

"We've hung on for the last three years with very little in the way of funding," says Julie Woestehoff, PURE's executive director. "I won't sugarcoat it—we're hurting."

The nonprofit group offers resources and training for members of local school councils, the nine-member elected panels that oversee hiring and budgeting in the public schools. In 2003 PURE had a budget of $360,000 and a staff of five. Now it's down to two employees—Woestehoff and Wanda Hopkins—and a budget of approximately $100,000. If it can't bring in more money from its upcoming membership drive or find a new source of funding, the group will be out of commission.

Why should you care? Well, if you're Mayor Richard Daley or Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, you shouldn't: bad news for PURE is good news for the Daley gang. From their perspective, a group like PURE is a royal pain in the keister. Not only are its leaders articulate and opinionated, but they've been around long enough to know what they're talking about. And they act independently.

They form coalitions with other outsiders and advise aggrieved teachers and parents about the ins and the outs of our clout-heavy school system. They're not afraid to file lawsuits—as a matter of fact PURE's got one challenging the Board of Education's stance on local school councils in charter and privately run schools right now. On issue after issue—centralized curriculum, high-stakes testing, accurate measures of the dropout rate, school closings, how and where the school board spends its money—they counter the spin coming out of the central office. Over the years they've been the go-to people for anyone looking for the real deal on what's going down with Chicago's public schools. They're a repository for information—test scores, school board press releases, reports and studies on education—that they make available to reporters, researchers, and school activists. With the press cutting back and the mayor having successfully consolidated almost all the power in town, we need watchdogs like PURE more than ever.

But we're heading in the opposite direction. When I came to town back in the early 80s, there were at least a half dozen aggressive City Hall and school watchdog groups, funded by some of the city's leading foundations. Over the years I've watched them all go out of business—including the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which was one of the first to sound the alarm about abuse, inefficiency, and waste in Chicago's tax increment financing program.

As these groups have struggled, their organizers have complained to me about a lack of support from local foundations. In the past three years PURE has lost funding from the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Chicago Community Trust, the Joyce Foundation, and Wieboldts Charitable Funds. It's a downward spiral not uncommon among nonprofits: diminishing funds lead to diminishing effectiveness at raising funds, building membership, and achieving mission goals, all criteria foundations base their decisions on. The Woods Fund, for example, turned the group down in part for its lack of a "larger organized constituency of stakeholders."

"We're a parent advocacy group," says Woestehoff. "We were designed to give parents a voice in education policy-making in Chicago. That's what we do. I can't believe there's no need for that anymore."

Mayor Daley himself has helped make life difficult for groups like PURE by diverting the big grant money with his own not-for-profits. He's called on some of the city's leading foundations—including several who used to fund PURE—to donate to After School Matters, the program founded by his wife, and the Renaissance Schools Fund, which helps the board open new publicly funded charter and alternative schools.

And of course, the flavor of the day in corporate fund-raising is the Olympics. In the last two years the Chicago 2016 committee has raked in more than $40 million to fund the city's bid to win the games. It's unprovable, but I'll wager that a sliver of that money might otherwise have gone to the not-for-profit agitators who dare to keep the mayor on his toes.

Actually, if corporate Chicago really wants to help the city's public schools, businesses should sink their money into a fight to keep the Olympics out of town before it bankrupts us all, the CPS included.

Oh, wait, that would upset Mayor Daley. Better forget it. You wouldn't want to get in trouble.

Why I Miss Burt Natarus

I was sitting in the Harold Washington Library Center the other day, going through pages and pages of transcripts from past Community Development Commission meetings—I know, I know, I have no life—when I stumbled upon a priceless treasure: a transcript of the 2006 meeting where 42nd ward alderman Burt Natarus endorsed the proposed LaSalle Central TIF district.

The CDC, charged with overseeing the city's development plans, is for the most part a rubber stamp, and most aldermen limit their remarks before the panel to a few minutes. But Natarus, who lost his post to Brendan Reilly last year, was in a league of his own when it came to oratory. Once he got started, he couldn't stop—like a character in a Coen brothers movie or a John Guare play.

Here he began by introducing himself as an "old coot," recalling that when he became alderman back in 1971 there were few high-rises on Michigan Avenue. Which got him on a tangent itemizing the buildings that were there at the time—the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, the Palmolive Building, the Drake Hotel, the building—oh, what was its name?—that used to be across the street from the Drake. Which reminded him of a time "when there were fences where Water Tower Place was, and there were canvas sheets put over the fences when the Seagram family played in the back and Michigan Avenue took off."

The Seagram family?

This led him to ask a question: "Why did Michigan Avenue take off?" Which, once asked, had to be answered—even if the answer undercut the larger point he was trying to make about the need for approving the LaSalle Central TIF.

"Well, it was a matter of the market. And there were people like Rubloff and other people who promoted it, and it just took off naturally without any governmental aid and they built. And the other thing they did was they—all of them participated in the planting of the trees and the gardens, and they did it all voluntarily."

Just as it seemed he was heading down an irreversible path away from whatever ultimate point he wanted to make, he found his way. "Meanwhile, the Loop went down," he said.

"Henrici's was there. There was a place on the third floor where you could play a game called snooker, which is pool with the small balls. I remember when Chicago Federal Savings & Loan was torn down. I remember when Hillman's was torn down. I remember when Stop and Shop was torn down. And nothing came back. Nothing was going. And then you had to say to yourself, what brought it back? Well, what brought it back was TIF."

And off he went on a convoluted explanation of how TIFs work—and trust me, it's not an easy thing to explain. How the investment creates new taxes, which get plowed into more investment, which in turn creates more taxes so you can build things and plant things and install wrought-iron fences. "Where do you think you get that money from? Does it come out of the trees? Do you shake the tree, the money tree, and it falls down? It comes out of TIF. That's how you pay for these things."

Which got him thinking about tourists, gaping at Chicago's tall buildings in amazement: "'Oh, look at the beautiful buildings.' They're tremendous here in Chicago. And how many cities have a central business area like that? We don't have urban sprawl."

Which got him reminiscing about a trip he took to Phoenix. "I won't tell you how I got there. I did pay for it myself. I went to Phoenix. And I'm in a resort. I do hope you find this entertaining. But I went to a resort, and I'm talking to the hotel manager. And I says, 'How's Phoenix doing?' He says, 'This isn't a mountain resort anymore.' 'Why?' 'They're building houses six blocks away.' That's urban sprawl. They have no central area. They have no—well, San Francisco does. New York is dead. New York is so dead they can't even put [the 9/11 memorial] together yet. They haven't put it together yet to rebuild it. Isn't it amazing? With all of the money that they have in New York and all the developers that they have in New York, they can't put the package together."

As I read, I recalled being at that meeting, sitting in the City Council chambers, watching Natarus speak without notes, much less a script, and wondering, Where is he going and how will he get there?

"I want to remind this body of one thing," he said in conclusion. "You know what you used to be—you're the CDC now, but you used to be called Urban Renewal. And this is not urban renewal. Thank you."

When he finished there was a moment of silence. Then Mary Richardson-Lowry, the CDC's chair at the time, said, "Thank you, alderman."

"I'm—I'm a—I don't think I persuaded anybody," said Natarus.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.

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