Torrance Shorter stands in the rain outside Martin A. Ryerson Elementary School one recent afternoon. He’s making a last-ditch effort to keep Ryerson from being merged with the nearby Laura S. Ward Elementary School in the fall.
As parents pick up their children, he slips fliers through car windows and encourages them to come out to a meeting that he’s helping organize. He stuffs more fliers into kids’ hands.
“Tell your momma to come to the meeting this afternoon,” he says to one pre-teenage boy as they locked eyes. “Right when you get home,” he adds, as the boy walks off.
Shorter knows many Ryerson parents and grandparents. He and his wife live just across the street in the same house that he grew up in. “This is the grade school I graduated from,” the 6-foot-tall, out-of-work cook says. Now, four of his own children attend the Humboldt Park school, and he serves on its Local School Council.
Ryerson is one of 54 schools across the city that in March were initially slated to close. CPS officials estimate the closings will save the district $43 million each year during the next decade. By consolidating schools, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett has pledged to pour more money into the consolidated schools that will replace the shuttered ones.
But in many of the consolidated schools, the additional resources are likely to pale in comparison with what’s spent incarcerating people from the same neighborhoods, according to an analysis of the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court records by The Chicago Reporter. The analysis looked at felony sentences handed out in Cook County’s criminal courts during the past 12 years.
Take Ryerson, for example. It’s located in a census tract where the cost of incarcerating its residents is topping $80 million, the Reporter’s analysis shows.
The majority of those corrections costs will be covered by state and county taxes. That’s nearly twice the $48 million—in federal, state and city tax dollars—spent on educating students at Ryerson during that time, the Reporter and its sister publication Catalyst Chicago found. The figure is based on a joint analysis of CPS budgets and the data from the county clerk.
Add the incarceration costs for the census tracts where students from the other 53 schools that were on the initial closure list live, and the cost of those sentences amounts to $2.7 billion. That’s more than the $2.2 billion cost of maintaining the schools that are closing.
“One thing that virtually everyone would agree on is that they would rather have the opportunity to spend on education … than the necessity, or perceived necessity, to spend on corrections,” says Robert Coombs, a spokesman for the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. For nearly a decade, the Lexington, Ky.-based nonprofit has studied how states can increase public safety while lowering incarceration costs. The savings can be reinvested in public health care or education programs.
“It’s important to look at all of the money that’s being spent,” Coombs added. But he’s cautious about comparing the costs between school and prison spending because, “People who are making those decisions are not always talking about spending the same money.”
CPS spokesman Dave Miranda says the way the school district operates is that “the state and city tell us how much money we’ll get, and we have to make it work.”
Just about everyone who lives around Ryerson is tight on money, and Shorter says that the grade school has never been an exception.
“Every year we have to hustle and pray to get football and basketball going,” he says.
He and other parents have sold snow cones, raffled off a 32-inch television and even gone “begging” for donations along West Chicago Avenue to fund activities that keep students busy after school. The problem, he says, is that few people have money to give. “Sometimes we say, ‘Hey, let us get a quarter—or $2.’”
Crime dominates the conversation as Shorter and I walk around Ryerson and nearby Humboldt Park blocks, where many students live. As we pass the teachers’ parking lot, he notes that a fence was recently put up, “not because they were stealing cars but because they were stealing parts off cars.” As he points out a series of trash cans and vacant houses that are known drug-stash spots, a stray German shepherd runs through the alley and into a vacant lot.
Shorter has worked with police for years to identify problem spots. The neighborhood wasn’t always like this, Shorter adds. “As a kid, [parents] told you, ‘Don’t step on anyone’s grass. Don’t go into anyone’s house when we don’t know them.’”
“Now, the more we try to make it better, the bad element keeps it getting worse,” he says.
When I ask Shorter what he thinks about incarceration spending, his response is swift. “Now, think if you would have put some of that [incarceration] money in the school building at first,” he says.
At 39, he’s seeing people he grew up with still struggling to get ahead because of past felony convictions. “I’ve seen too many young black men go from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.”
Despite the neighborhood’s challenges, one thing that it has going for it, in Shorter’s eyes, is Ryerson. In 2011, it was one of Chicago’s higher performing schools, according to CPS performance data. Conditions started to unravel last year when the principal was promoted up the ranks within CPS, more than a handful of teachers quit, and the YMCA after-school program pulled out. “The school was gutted” by the time a new principal came in, Shorter says.
Despite the upheaval, he adds, “These kids come in every day and perform their butts off.”
In his eyes, the bigger problem with local education is that, while Ryerson has done its part to shape students, most will filter into Orr Academy High School, a low-performing school with a chronic dropout problem, located about a half-mile away from the grade school.
“I don’t want my kids to go to Orr, but I can’t afford the alternative,” Shorter says.
His son, a Ryerson student, earned a coveted seat at Whitney Young High School this fall. But the cost to take two buses each day to get to the school, a little less than 5 miles away, is too much. Charter school fees are too steep as well. “I told my son if something changes, Lord willing, he’ll go.” For now, “we just can’t afford it,” he says.
As Shorter and I walk back to the school, he bumps into his eldest son, an 18-year-old Orr senior, who stopped by to check in with his dad on his way home.
Shorter tells me that he’s seen too many of the boys that his son has grown up with end up at the Cook County Jail before even making adulthood. “Some of them multiple times.”
Shorter’s fear is that, by closing Ryerson, young people will become more angry and disgruntled. “And eventually, they’re going to act out, and you’re going to lock them up.”
“You’re not just turning one school over to another school,” he added. “You’re hurting a whole community.”