By Ben Joravsky
For the past six years the Park District has run a popular daytime art class at Warren Park up in West Rogers Park. Then in January the park's administrators canceled the class, telling the students that the central office needed to slice programs to save money.
"Something is goofy here, something is very strange," says Candace Bennett, a north-side resident who's one of the 15 regular students in the class, "because the explanations they offer don't make sense."
Bennett is one of the younger people in the class, which is filled mostly with retired men and women who are well into their 70s. She and other students praise their teacher, Sallie Ronnis, saying the class exemplifies what the parks do best. "It's a free class in the neighborhood," says Virginia Morin, who took the class with her 90-year-old mother, Katherine Morin. "It's an open studio class, which means everybody's doing different things. Some people did watercolors, others did oil, others pastels or drawing. We had classical music playing in the background. Sallie would walk around and encourage us. There was no pressure. It was just a lovely room and a lovely class."
In December Ronnis announced that she was retiring, and class members say they were told by Warren Park officials that she wouldn't be replaced. It was hardly front-page news--few people outside the class even knew about it. But Morin and her classmates were upset. "The Park District supervisor decided that because they needed to cut 10 percent from the budget, she would cut the seniors' program--because her priority is kids," she says. "I have nothing against programs for kids. Of course they should have them. But they should also have an art class for adults."
She and the other students couldn't understand why the Park District needed to cancel a tiny program. Bennett points out that the class wasn't competing for a time slot. "We had it at one in the afternoon, when there was hardly anyone else in the park," she says. "They would just be wasting a lovely art room if they closed it. It's like building a great center and then locking the door."
And they didn't understand why the Park District was so strapped for funds. "Property taxes are going up--where's the money going?" says Morin. "Everybody was terribly disappointed. We had a party for Sallie on the last day. It was sad."
The students looked for an alternative, but found that most of the private art studios either charged more money than they could afford or were inaccessible to people with walkers, wheelchairs, or motorized scooters. Bennett, who has multiple sclerosis, uses a scooter.
So they wrote a letter to Michael Scott, chairman of the Park District's board of commissioners, pleading with him to use his power to keep the class open. "There is very little going on in the building on Tuesdays from 10:00 to 2:00," the letter pointed out. "We are the only activity in the building at that time. We would be willing to pay a reasonable fee for the class if money is the problem."
Copies of the letter were also sent to David Doig, the Park District's general superintendent; to Rodger Konow, region manager of the North District; and to Mayor Daley. No one responded. "We didn't even get an acknowledgment from an aide that they received the letter," says Morin. "We were ignored. It's very frustrating."
Then they wrote a letter to the local newspapers, and they contacted the watchdog group Friends of the Parks. They discovered they weren't alone. "It's not just Warren Park," says Jackie Guthrie, director of volunteers for Friends of the Parks. "We're getting reports of cutbacks from parks in many different neighborhoods." She says those parks include Skinner, Gately, Mount Greenwood, and Brainerd. "They're just not replacing people who leave," she says. "They are cuts through attrition."
I called random north-side parks and heard that several have cut services by not replacing staff. At one park, for instance, the recreation leader who left over six months ago still hasn't been replaced, and as a result fewer children have been accepted into the youth basketball league. The same park has cut its hours on Sunday, so the public has less access to its swimming pool.
Instructors at other parks talked of not having enough money to pay for basic supplies, such as paper for copier machines and toilet paper. "We didn't have enough money to pay for T-shirts for our basketball league," says one instructor, who, like most Park District employees, pleaded for anonymity.
Watchdog groups say it's tough to determine how the parks are spending their money. When Mayor Harold Washington was in office the City Council was a vigilant overseer, but now the council rarely makes a peep about Park District expenditures, ceding complete control to Mayor Daley. Park District employees aren't allowed to answer questions from reporters--all questions from the media, no matter how routine, are directed to the central office. "We've been told not to give out any information," says one Park District employee. "It's a matter of keeping our jobs."
"It's worse than it's ever been in terms of paranoia or public participation," says Erma Tranter, director of Friends of the Parks. "They're making it very difficult for any kind of public scrutiny. We're not getting the budget enough in advance to do a careful analysis before it passes."
For their part, officials in the Park District's central office insist there've been no cuts. On the contrary, they say, programs are expanding. "Thanks to seven years of good management, we have been able to invest in parks in every neighborhood of Chicago, including repairing facilities, acquiring parkland, fixing up playgrounds, and adding exciting new recreational facilities," David Doig stated in a press release distributed in November when the Park District published its budget. According to the same press release, the district "showed an increase in spending for neighborhood park programs of $5 million."
Doig's statement added that "70 Central Administration positions" were being cut, "saving over $2 million. Through other efficiencies, the District will make available $5 million more next year for neighborhood parks." In the last seven years, he went on, "the number of employees at the Park District has dropped by almost 1,800, from 4,938 to 3,148. At the same time, the amount of revenue from non-property tax sources has doubled, from $53 million to $106 million, enabling the District to invest more in parks without having to raise taxes."
So why are parks cutting services? To get an answer about the Warren Park cuts, Candace Bennett decided to attend a March 7 meeting at the Park District's central office, which is near the Field Museum. "I got on my scooter and took the el to State and Van Buren," she says. "I was going to catch the 146 [bus] to the district. The first bus that came didn't have a lift. While I was talking to that driver, another bus came from behind and just kept going. That's the one with the lift. It was so freaking cold that day. I must have waited 25 minutes. I didn't want to miss the meeting. I'm pretty determined once I get a goal in mind. So I just took off."
She scooted east on Van Buren. "I crossed Michigan Avenue, and then I went through some park trails and sidewalks until I got near the Field Museum. I asked a guard for directions to the Park District building. It's way out there. By the time I made it I was freezing. My hands were like ice."
As it turned out, the meeting was of a committee of the board, and its members were discussing the installation of new soccer fields. "I got in line to speak anyway," says Bennett. "I wasn't going to have come all the way down there and not talk. I said something about soccer--I don't know. And then I changed the subject and mentioned how we had this great art class that was canceled. This one person on the board was confused. She said, 'Are we still talking about soccer fields here?'"
Region manager Rodger Konow, who was attending the meeting, immediately said it was all a misunderstanding. "He took me into the hallway and said he didn't understand why he had been getting all these letters about this class--because the class had not been canceled," says Bennett. "He said that it will be back next week, on Tuesday [March 13]. 'Just go there--you'll see.' I'm thinking, this is so strange. I mean, if the class was not canceled, why did the people at Warren Park tell us it was canceled? And if they were going to bring it back, why didn't they tell us that? Why didn't they respond to our letter and petition? Why didn't Konow call me or Virginia or anyone else--we put all of our phone numbers on the letter we sent him--to set us straight?"
Tranter suspects that the central office was embarrassed by the sight of the freezing Bennett on her scooter and that Konow's response was a hasty attempt to correct the matter before it reached the press. But Konow and Park District spokeswoman Angelynne Amores insist it's all a misunderstanding. "The teacher retired in February," says Amores. "We are hiring someone back. In the meantime, we will be bringing in different teachers until we hire someone to replace [Ronnis]."
Amores and Konow both say there have been no budget cuts. If vacancies persist, they say, it's because the parks have trouble finding adequate replacements for people who leave. "Hiring people might take some time," says Amores. "We want to make sure that the people we provide are up to the quality. So it takes longer."
They also say there have been no copier-paper or T-shirt shortages. "We held an order of T-shirts because we're in a transition phase," says Konow. "We've actually changed some vendors. There is no issue about getting what we need. There are no budget cuts whatsoever."
Morin says she and her classmates think the central office doesn't want to admit it has overspent on beautification programs and construction projects such as Millennium Park. "I suspect it's a matter of spending priorities," she says. "They've spent a lot of money on wrought-iron fences and big planters, and now they don't have money for programs. I actually think it's a strategy. When they cut a program they tell you all sorts of things. One person says one thing, another person says something else. Meanwhile, time keeps passing, and after enough time passes people drop out. Well, our art class isn't dropping out."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.