From police to schools to transit, a crisis of accountability in Chicago

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File photo by Grace Donnelly

If Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement of a splashy but half-baked project for an express line to O’Hare International Airport was intended to distract from the ongoing scandal of police misconduct lawsuits and the shocking new scandal of sexual abuse in Chicago Public Schools, it was a poor choice. The O’Hare project just underscores the very issue at the core of those scandals, an issue that runs through Emanuel’s administration – lack of accountability.

There’s a stark parallel between problems in the Chicago Police Department and CPS. In both cases, accountability systems that should have protected those being served by the agencies from mistreatment ended up protecting the bureaucracy instead of the people.

In both systems, individuals who complained were ignored and staff with long records of complaints went unchecked. In CPD, oversight investigators (until recently) sustained very few civilian complaints, supervision was lax and early intervention systems were nonfunctionalCops (and a civilian investigator) who disregarded the code of silence were punished. In CPS, the same law department investigating complaints lodged by students and parents also opposed their lawsuits in court.

The challenge of police reform is vast, but some steps have been taken to strengthen investigatory agencies – though creation of a civilian oversight body is again bogged down by a mayor who doesn’t believe in sharing power. Meanwhile, the cost of misconduct lawsuits continues to pile up.

In CPS, with a school board accountable only to the mayor, the school system has experienced one scandal after another. Emanuel’s board has failed to object to corrupt contracts or to conflicts of interest. It approved a series of cuts to school budgets and then approved a consultant’s scheme to save money on special education with reductions that turned out to be illegal. Faced with complaints that private contractors were failing to keep school buildings clean (contractors passed inspections because they were informed of them ahead of time), the board is considering expanding the contracts.

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Marching to the mayor’s orders – ignoring pleas from school communities and experts arguing their utilization data was flawed – the board approved the largest school closing in U.S. history five years ago. This year, ignoring the performance and utilization criteria in CPS’s school closing policy, they followed orders and approved the closing of National Teachers Academy, a politically-motivated decision that leaves the clear impression that the only thing that counts in closing a school is that its students be predominantly African-American.

Now Emanuel has decided to use new state money to expand early education. That’s a good election-year move, and it’s a noble goal, though we should recall that preschool enrollment actually declined following Emanuel’s previous early education initiatives. But the money Emanuel wants to use, based on a new state funding formula he supported last year,  is intended to bring CPS up to adequate funding levels in its elementary and high schools – schools that have faced deep cuts under Emanuel and have a long way to go to reach “adequacy.” (Cuts to social workers and nurses may have contributed to the district’s failure to address sexual abuse.) And future years’ funding is not assured. Don’t expect the school board to ask any questions about that.

But never mind all that – here’s a shiny new object to catch your eye: billionaire Elon Musk’s offer to build at tunnel to O’Hare at no cost to taxpayers. But even this highlights Emanuel’s top-down, unaccountable, and politically-driven style of governance. And far from being truly “visionary,” the project is quite arguably short-sighted.

There are plenty of questions about the project. Musk’s claims about his new tunneling technology are unproven and questioned by experts. A test tunnel in California has been held up by Musk’s attempt to skip over environmental reviews.  Crediting the project’s economic viability – both projected costs and revenues – requires a huge leap of faith. So does the assertion that taxpayers won’t ultimately be on the hook. The record of such promises for privately-financed public projects – from Millennium Park to Toronto’s airport express – has always ended in taxpayer bailouts.

Emanuel’s response: “It’s easy to be a critic or cynic.”  He will make all the big decisions, all by himself.

Transportation experts are scratching their heads. The tunnel will give Chicago no competitive advantage; the Blue and Orange Lines already give the city a more efficient transit link to its airports than almost any other large U.S. city. According to the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, it makes more sense to link Metra’s north and south lines to give the South Side and the south suburbs (not to mention McCormick Place) direct access to the job-rich O’Hare area. The first step toward that could be converting Metra’s South Chicago branch to serve the Far South Side – a much cheaper and quicker solution than extending the Red Line.

That would require prioritizing community needs and listening to community voices. It would also require political will. Currently Metra is desperate for funding but, by focusing solely on suburban commuter ridership, is ignoring huge potential revenue from city residents.

Ultimately, that effort could link to a region-wide rail network, serving residents of small cities around the Midwest who want to get to O’Hare. That’s a ways off, but that’s visionary.

Emanuel’s vision is different, though: a global city in which neighborhood residents are lucky to get low-wage jobs serving the international business elite ­– if they can get to the jobs.

The mayor’s development policies embody this vision, and they are equally unaccountable. His emphasis is on attracting corporate headquarters, on the Riverwalk, on developing the North Branch and Rezkoville. Details of the massive subsidy offered to Amazon have yet to be publicly released. Huge TIF subsidies to developers are handed down from the fifth floor of City Hall with cursory OKs by the City Council.  They dwarf the scale of neighborhood investment programs Emanuel has launched, which are also handed out by the mayor and may serve best to provide him with photo ops to counter his ‘Mayor One Percent’ image.

Emanuel is raising campaign funds furiously in order to dominate next year’s election and forestall a serious discussion of issues. On police, on schools, on transportation, on development, the problem is that the people Emanuel is accountable to are the big-money donors (like Elon Musk) who helped put him in office.