Tresser begins his presentation explaining what led him to the TIF problem in the first place: hearing, over and over again, “We’re broke… sorry about your overcrowded school, sorry about your public park with no basketball hoops, sorry about the fact that you have to wait forty minutes for the bus, but we’re broke!” That is the excuse for the city’s proliferating privatization deals. It is the excuse, indeed, for Rahm’s fifty school closings.
Later, Tresser describes the even more painstaking work of breaking down TIF finances in each of the city’s fifty wards; they have been able to finish only fifteen so far. (The old trouper, who is a cueball, gets a laugh joking, “I used to have hair.”) He points to a chart indicating that the Fourth Ward, which we’re in, has $15 million in its fund balance. (“The provocative question is: What would you do to improve the ward if you had $15 million in your checking account?”) He points to another chart listing the ward’s TIF beneficiaries: twenty-one private real estate developments and one public school (one of the schools, ironically, that the school board is closing), all outside the designated blighted areas.
Tresser announces, “We want to deputize you to go to these projects and ask them what they did with your money.” He notes that while the city claims 54 percent of property taxes went to the Board of Education, if you include the money in the TIF “black box,” it’s actually only 36 percent.
“So are we broke?” Tresser asks. “It starts to get a little hazy to me.”
The local alderman, Will Burns, has sent his policy and communications director as his representative. At the beginning of the meeting, the aide announced that without TIFs, “high-quality development would not happen in the South Side community.” By the end, he is the recipient of some very hard stares. And a new cadre in Chicago’s activist army has been stirred.
Chicago school activists call this kind of work “data liberation,” and it’s been crucial to their campaign. Sorting through the data (when they could get it), they discovered that the “utilization formula” the school board was using to select which schools to keep open was based on whether homerooms were in a certain range: 20 percent above or below an “ideal enrollment” of thirty students. This means a school could average thirty-six students per classroom and still be considered underutilized. Activists had to dig that statistic out of an entirely separate pool of numbers, the district’s “empty seat” calculation. “We know it’s intentional,” explains Eric Téllez, communications and research coordinator for the Grassroots Collaborative, “to keep the public at bay and unaware of what’s going on.”
It’s not working. Such data liberations have turned into major propaganda coups for the CTU and a major driver of outrage against the school closings. So did a finding by radio station WBEZ, based on much of this same work, that of the nine empirical claims the school board was making about school closings, all nine were either inaccurate or false.
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Chicago is where the spreadsheets are meeting the streets—and changing the face of politics in the city. Consider the victories of the last few years. Activists helped sink an Olympic bid that would have been a giant boondoggle and land grab (the failure was a key reason Mayor Richard Daley shocked the city by deciding not to run for re-election in 2011 after six terms). The Chicago Mercantile Exchange was embarrassed into returning $15 million in TIF money. The G-8 moved its conference out of fear of an advancing activist army. The CTU led its members in a victorious teachers strike. This kind of thing is not supposed to be possible, because teachers unions are said to be despised, especially by public school parents. But not in Chicago, where in a recent poll the most militant teachers union in the country is supported by 54 percent of parents; only 9 percent side with the mayor. That mayor came into office with national ambitions, but now his disapproval rating is 40 percent, and only 24 percent of Chicagoans believe the city is better off than it was under the also-unpopular Mayor Daley.
Watch Chicago. Watch it this September, when the school year is set to open with fifty fewer schools in operation. “So let me tell you what you’re gonna do,” shouted CTU president Karen Lewis in a rally last March. “On the first day of school, you show up at your real school! Don’t let these people take your schools!” The conditions are ripe for such civil disobedience: the bonds of trust within a variegated activist community; a growing culture of militancy extending all the way down to formerly quiescent middle-class parents; strategic smarts, passion, momentum. Brazil, Bulgaria, Taksim Square… Chicago. The next battle in the global war against austerity, privatization and corruption just might spark off right here.
Past shuttered schools and glass-strewn vacant lots, the Chicago Teachers Union documented the likely toll of Rahm Emanuel’s latest disastrous education plan, in Rick Perlstein’s April 5 blog entry, “A New Chicago Freedom Ride.”