UNO “spending spree” revisited: An Illinois Blues moment

Blithe Spirit

Mihalopoulos of Sun-Times back at it about the charter network with the mostest clout — an Illinois Blues moment.

Even as they ran a network of charter schools for thousands of students in low-income neighborhoods across Chicago, United Neighborhood Organization leader Juan Rangel and other UNO officials were piling up big bills at fancy restaurants and for travel on the taxpayers’ dime, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

The records:

Despite being almost entirely government-funded, UNO leaders fought to keep the spending records secret, arguing that they didn’t have to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act because UNO is a private organization.

But they ultimately released the records in a recent legal settlement with the Sun-Times.

It’s an Illinois Blues moment in that UNO came up in a July, 2013 town hall meeting in Oak Park. Sen. Don Harmon was asked about UNO.

. . . with reference to a…

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No stinkin’ SEOPCO at Brooks-Eisenhower 2013 meeting, Ann & Pete show, kabuki to the end

Curiously but understandably, in view of the demands of political one-upmanship, the senator made no mention in the Brooks meeting of the Southeast Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO), the disturbingly grass-roots operation, boasting no office-holders, owing nothing to the ruling party, comprising the essence of being somebody no one sent.

The CTA man McLaughlin, the other featured presence besides SecTrans, got reasonable applause as he took the mike. So did all the speakers, as opposed to how it’s done in town halls of another stripe, in which elected people face the music from constituents and applause if any is not for candidates and office-holders but now and then for points made by people in attendance. They are constituent-centered gatherings in that respect. This wasn’t.

The senator had in effect hijacked the term town hall to give a patina of grass-roots origin to what was a patently political meeting — less community meeting than solemn high gathering of eagles, pulled together by him, for which he had made ample use of robocalling as reminder, with an eye to the coming re-election campaign, when he’d better win big, lest the ongoing pension-reform debacle appear to have diminished Democrat, not to mention his own, luster.

At least one of the eagles, an Oak Park official, did not show. We know that because the senator, while naming those who showed, taking attendance, noticed that he hadn’t.

All in all, it was a kabuki performance, comical in its way. SecTrans Schneider, “Ann” throughout, nodded approval as background to the senator and others, a sort of bobblehead in action. He praised her, she praised him. He had been “in the trenches, fighting” for us. Ditto Senator Lightford. Oak Parkers were “lucky” to have them, said Ann. Gosh.

For her part, she bucked questions repeatedly to “Pete,” Peter Harmet, Schaumburg-based IDOT chief of programming, her engineer-in-presence, explaining that she knew “higher” things, but not engineering ones. What a love. But she repeatedly got her generic, sometimes bromidic comments in , as overlay for details from Pete, leaving it to him to give us the low-down.

At least once he responded to her direction — to pull up a screen and give us a one-off image towards meeting’s end — with a quiet laugh that seemed to say, “Sure, Boss, anything you say,” or “There she goes again, good old Ann.” The slide-screen image itself had no obvious direct reference to anything said that night. It was just Ann being helpful.

In due time, the show lurched to its appointed close, ten minutes or so past its 9 p.m. deadline, many having left the auditorium. It perhaps gave food for thought for the next SEOPCO meeting, to which the senator and various officials would surely be welcome and from which they would surely be absent.

Office-holders praising each other, fighting the fight, in the trenches — Eisenhower fix-up meeting, Brooks Middle School, 2013

Oct. 29 was the fix-Eisenhower meeting at Brooks. The senator had called it, announced it in the newspaper, had urged attendance with robocalls, ran it.

He set the tone at the start, standing at a podium in front of a big stage in the ample middle-school auditorium, facing a good-sized crowd. “Eleven or twelve years ago,” he a newly elected senator, “we [royal “we”?] were fighting this fight in Oak Park.” Military images predominate; there were more to come.

“It’s been a longstanding issue in our community, going back generations.” (To when Oak Park clout, then Republican, forced a narrowing of the roadway.) His honored guest the Sec Trans and IDOT director had been the “most responsive on this issue” of the four secretaries of transportation he had worked with in his eleven-plus years as senator. (Four in 11 years!)

Sec Trans responded in kind. The senator, she said, had been “in the trenches fighting” for Oak Parkers, who were “lucky to have him.” She also praised Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who had arrived late and been greeted by the senator from the podium and applauded.

Another giant of the trenches, she was applauded again later for a short, empty speech — “God bless you all,” she closed — and yet later when she left early and was bade goodbye by the senator. It was an absolute trifecta for her — applause when she arrived late and when she left early and when she spoke.

It was a touching for-the-love-of-Lightford display, before a compliant, somewhat cowed audience. The event had taken the appearance of a party for Springfield dignitaries. The others had come to watch.

Sec Trans — Secretary of Transportation Ann Schneider, the state’s highest-ranking highway official — was the evening’s featured presence, of course. She had been appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011 and was to be fired by him nine months later, resigning under a cloud in the wake of hiring improprieties.

The senator also praised, though not as heartily, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) vice president for planning and federal affairs (a sort of procurement officer) Michael McLaughlin, getting his name right as he had somehow failed to do in his Wednesday Journal column announcing the meeting.

Yes, Mrs. McLaughlin, it’s your son Michael. No, Mrs. Connelly, it’s not yours. And no, Senator The senator, as you know quite well, one Irish name is not as good as another.

This CTA man proved the weightier when the dust had settled, in part because of his experience as an aide to a congressman (Lipinski) and a U.S. senator (Durbin), in part by his rapid-fire production of friendly time-fillers, as in referring to Oak Park “snack shops” at the end of the Green Line (we’re here to patronize you villagers, live with it) — but most of all in answering questions without praising anyone effusively or telling us he’s a grandparent or waving his hands when talking or nodding his head in affirmation of what others were saying, which was how the best-ever SecTrans/IDOT director comported herself on this evening.

In other words, he demonstrated a knack for looking as if he knew what he was talking about. No small thing in a public servant.

Nor did he, as did SecTrans, repeatedly turn to staff for answers after volubly restating a question. Indeed, Just once did he call on a helper, a young woman who supplied a data-based answer crisply and to the point.

In short, it was Chicago (CTA) one, Springfield (IDOT) nothing as regards credibility at this event, which was nonetheless a godsend for the senator and to a lesser extent Lightford as a way to get into voters’ line of sight without having to talk about fiscal problems — also no small thing in Illinois in 2013.

A voter asked where the money was coming from for this highway and transit-line renovation. “Good question,” said CTA’s McLaughlin, delivering the news that Washington is “broke.”

“No it isn’t” came from the floor.

Yes it is, said McLaughlin. “The Federal Highway trust fund [whence come relevant moneys] has to borrow from other funds as it is. The gas tax rate is the same as 1993, but forty percent less gas is being bought. We can’t rely on Washington. The money isn’t there.” Bang.

“Big chunks of change” are needed, Schneider added, her sentences running together, hands moving all the time, voice rising at end of sentence, as if hoping we will agree.

Her IDOT bio had her in her early fifties. She called herself a grandmother, apparently of one or more stepddaughters’ children. Her hiring of a stepdaughter was to feature in her inglorious resignation.

Oak Park’s two state representatives, Camille Lilly and LaShawn K. Ford, were missing from this gathering. Lilly had only a few blocks of the Eisenhower “corridor,” as it’s known, in her district. Ford had a mile and a half, all of it in Oak Park — though his 8th district meanders amazingly on a southwest tack through ten neighborhoods and towns, ending on the western edge of LaGrange.

They too could have entered and departed to applause and added their bless-you’s to Sen. Lightford’s, but it wasn’t their turn.

— to be continued —

Ballyhooing SecTrans, the lady with the mostest, before the October 2013 meeting about Eisenhower changes . . .

A week after the Julian meeting, the senator announced another, this one of his own devising, about fixing the Eisenhower expressway. It was to be held at another middle school, Gwendolyn Brooks, a few blocks down Washington Boulevard from Julian.

Chief among state officials to be on hand — and with others, held up for admiration — was to be the state’s secretary of transportation and as such director of the Illinois Department of Transportation, the formidable IDOT, the senator announced in a release.

This was Ann Schneider, who was to resign under a cloud a scant nine months later, thanked tersely by the governor for “years of hard work and dedication.”

He did not thank her for drawing down on him accusations of “perpetuating [Gov.] Blagojevich-era practices” by hiring and promoting without apparent cause her stepdaughter and hundreds of others, as charged by the Better Government Association, thus “tainting” her leadership.

He introduced her replacement as “a proven leader” who would make “an exceptional Transportation Secretary,” making no mention of her one hundred percent lack of public-transportation experience. Not that Schneider knew a hell of a lot.

The coming meeting would demonstrate that. The senator thought she would offer “details [of what] will affect the life of our community for decades to come.” But she was to do no such thing, referring all questions to staff,

In any case, the senator wanted “to be sure that Oak Park’s voice [was] heard,” to provide Oak Parkers “an additional opportunity to . . . shape future plans to the greatest extent possible,” he announced.

Already, he told Wednesday Journal readers. “Any reconfiguration of the expressway will remain in the existing footprint,” which was not guaranteed from the start, he wrote. Moreover, “potential future” extension of the CTA Blue Line was assured.

The redundant “potential future” expansion — eliminating potential past or present — inflicted a double whammy to extending the Blue Line — to Oak Brook, where the jobs were, as some urged — in the senator’s lifetime. It was most likely never considered in the first place.

The existing footprint, by the way, is a tribute to Oak Park’s clout, undisturbed since the village forced elimination of the fourth lane in the mile and a half that runs through the village and creating the bottleneck which has forced countless drivers to get in line for the three-lane stretch along Oak Park’s south end — and wait more than 14 million hours a year in 2002, making it the 19th-worst bottleneck in the country, per the Federal Highway Administration

This was three down from Tampa’s 16th-place “Malfunction Junction” but was far outpaced by Chicago’s own third-place “Circle interchange,” also known as the “spaghetti bowl,” with a whopping 25 million hours per annum down the wait-time rat hole.

Oak Park leaders, this time including the senator, were not about to defeat IDOT’s desire to add a lane in both directions and move ramps at Harlem and Austin to the right side of the expressway — eliminating two major elements of special treatment for Oak Park and special headaches for motorists. Rather, they were urging villagers to push for “mitigation of impacts” from these changes.

Oddly enough, none of this information was to be aired at the coming meeting, though it clearly loomed big in IDOT’s plan.

As for the meeting itself, after the newspaper and news-release announcement came a series of robo-calls in which the senator urged citizens to come and hear the experts.

It was a gathering that he instigated, vigorously promoted, and eventually presided over, with heavy political involvement and frequent expressions of mutual admiration by and for state officials in attendance, elected and otherwise.

Nothing was said, however, except in passing about politically unattached community groups, notably the Southeast Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO), who had been discussing the Eisenhower over many months, even years.

On the contrary. This meeting was announced as if SEOPCO had never existed. The senator wasn’t so much supplying a forum for citizens as hitting once again the campaign trail. A primary was only months away. It was his time to make a splash — neither SEOPCO’s nor anyone else’s.

— to be continued —

Cost of college, school lunches, pensions; Sen. Lightford hedges beautifully

— Oct 2113 gathering of eagles, Julian Middle School, concluded —

A panel of students were given the floor as yet another quizzer of the legislators. The meeting became a middle-school version of show and tell. The first question, a good one if not something for which the legislature has direct responsibility (did the students know that?), was about the high cost of college.

The Oak Park senator punted: Legislators are aware of the problem and are working on it.

Sen. Lightford referred to MAP (Monetary Award Program) grants, the state’s financial aid program for “neediest” students attending Illinois colleges, according to a state site, but not explaining that, assuming her audience recognized the term.

Rep. Lilly offered a remarkable claim: “I passed legislation for grants for junior college,” adding an equally remarkable suggestion: “I’d like to put on the table, [we should] get parents involved. We need to bring them to this room and ask them how to do it.”

But parents were in this room, so were their children, asking the legislators how to solve the problem. No one asked her what she had in mind, besides what they were doing then and there, including her fellow legislators, who no doubt knew her well enough to just let it go.

The next question, how improve school lunches, got the students some teacherly advice from Rep. Ford, a former teacher, he’d said earlier: “Form a student lunch committee. It will change things,” and from Sen. Lightford in a follow-up: “Draft legislation, if you will, changing, uh, the menu. Open dialog with the school administration.” All things considered, it was good advice from both.

A student asked about pension funds. They had been underfunded “the day [he] was born,” the Oak Park senator said. It was the most complicated problem” the state faced. Once again he noted “the crucial reform of 2010,” which he had said at the library three months earlier had “kind of solved” the problem but had been “grossly underreported,” he said, again with special mention of the Tribune as chief offender.

Rep. Ford, who had largely kept his counsel, called the problem “difficult to a degree,” but ruled out benefits reduction as unconstitutional (as so it was declared by the state supreme court some months later) “because it reduces [legislated] benefits” — which was the reasoning that prevailed within the Illinois Supreme Court.

Sen. Lightford declared it a moral issue. “I’m challenged,” she said, apparently meaning she couldn’t make up her mind, or so she said, carefully. “If a teacher after 25 to 30 years, retires, it’s totally wrong to [reduce] benefits.” Woman in audience, as if encouraging the preacher: “Right.”

Totally wrong, but she was “not for it . . . not against it,” having in mind “all who did their due diligence,” apparently meaning put in their time as employees, but note the newspeak, use of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t words and phrases.

The woman in the audience once more: “That’s right.”

Lightford made further extended comment, then struck a blow for reductions, sounding as if but not quite saying she had indeed made up her mind: “We’re talking about people’s livelihoods.”

The woman in the audience again: “That’s right.”

Lightford, continuing: “I have time” to plan, meaning her retirement, which she said was not expected for many years, but others do not. And finally, settling the matter: “I can’t give a yes or a no” to reducing pensions.

Her friend in the audience once more: “Thank you for that.

Lilly again had her dollop of wisdom: “Process is as important as the end itself.” She spoke with ands in air, causing mike-sputter: “So correctively, [sic] what can we do? We need to listen to one another.”

The woman in the audience said nothing.

“We are listening [paying attention] to state employees,” Lilly continued, finally seeming to embrace the unembraceable: “Someone will walk away with less,” adding in a massive hoping against hope, “they may have a better feeling toward our state.” Because they listened? Not clear.

Ford noted a possible upside to the pension cut. For someone on a fixed income “and working because they want to work,” he said, the outcome “might be good.” Congratulate that man for making the silk purse out of that sow’s ear.

In the nick of time. It was 9 pm. The meeting was over.

— End of Julian school forum — 

Schools’ “local control” a problem, says Sen. Lightford, who’s for it anyhow . . .

Oct. 2013 Julian school forum, continued, picking up from discussion of school mandates and school funding . . . .

The forum as such was over. It was time for instruction by a consultant in how to influence legislators. (Was it to inform parents and officials or warn legislators?

Trim, soft-spoken, neatly bearded, gray-haired, in gray suit, light gray shirt and nicely contrasting middle-gray tie, he was introduced as a member of CLAIM. A ringer?

He pitched heavily for new CLAIM members, giving his voice a lilt here and there to soothing effect, but did drone on, along the way resurrecting the state financial aid issue — which got a response from Sen. Lightford and follow-up by her colleagues.

Addressing “fair distribution” of funds, she made “local control” of schools the heart of the problem, promptly adding that she supports local control, which she had just said thwarts fair distribution. It was as good a case of instant back-tracking as one might find.

She also cited the city of Chicago’s “neglect” of nearby mostly-black Austin neighborhood, remaining with this subject as if to provide a moving target for detractors, though none were in evidence in that Oak Park meeting room on that lovely October evening.

Rep. Lilly revisited her “corporate round table” idea, avowing that she is “behind efforts” to eliminate “tax breaks for corporate America,” on the one hand, and urging that “we need to get corporate America involved” in school issues, on the other. For the first time in the evening, she found her stump style, hands moving, eyes ablaze, a cheerleader in full blast.

As if to rescue her from her somewhat opaque corporate-America plans, the Oak Park senator asked if she was “referring to TIF” ([tax-increment financing], adding a prompter, “Right?” as if she had forgotten her lines. TIF cash (in part subtracted from schools money), he added, must be used “for its intended purposes,” that is, for economic development.

“TIFs are good,” Lightford said, “but for me [modest woman!] a TIF should not take too much money from schools.” Not too much, just enough.

The Oak Park senator responded reasonably enough that TIF renewals — continued diverting of money from schools for business expansion — are regularly signed off on by all involved taxing bodies, including school districts. Who presumably see their advantages, he might have added.

Lilly hung with Lightford and added, voice rising, “If we [were to] prioritize education, TIF wouldn’t be an issue.”

If only.

School mandates and does Oak Park get too much money from the state? The senator from Maywood asking.

Returning to the October 2013 gathering of eagles, at Oak Park’s Percy Julian Middle School . . .

A CLAIM mother asked about the funding of mandates, what the state requires and the district pays for.

“It depends on how you define mandate,” said Sen. Lightford. It had become “very popular” to refer to compulsory kindergarten as unfunded, for instance, she said..

(The Oregon School Boards Association and Confederation of Oregon School Administrators had done so as recently as two and a half years earlier, favoring kindergarten but regretting it as unaffordable.)

She said she was “lukewarm” about the problem and preferred a “happy-medium” solution.

Wanting not to put the questioner “on the spot,” the Oak Park senator, our hero for this series, asked for examples of “significant” added costs of a mandate.

The questioner turned to ask the superintendent, who wasn’t there! It was an important gathering, he had said earlier, but not important enough to stick around.

Reps. Ford and Lilly had their own soothing generalities to go with Lightford’s “happy-medium” approach. And why not, in view of the disappearance of the superintendent?

Ford: “We want to meet the needs of all children. . . . We all listen . . . ”

Lilly: “We have to look at the entire picture . . . ” And nobody asked her what the hell she was talking about.

Another CLAIM questioner raised the longstanding hot-button issue of state funding of public schools in general, setting up a haves-vs.-have-nots give and take.

Sen. Lightford, representing a town and area with social and economic troubles such as Oak Park does not have and probably never will, complained about the formula for allocating that funding ($4 billion in 2013), based as it was on “40- to 50-year-old poverty figures.”

She was serious about this: Two years later she co-sponsored a bill that would considerably alter that formula, taking from the relatively rich and giving to the relatively poor districts.

“Is it fair?” she asked at the Julian meeting, that Oak Park gets as much as it does, “considering its lower-than-average poverty rate?” State aid (to Oak Park schools) “may be” less, she said. Which was all in all a sufficiently ambiguous comment for the occasion, made before launching into numbing detail about the process of deciding how funds are apportioned.

The Oak Park senator ignored her allegation of unfairness — no need to ruffle feathers — but agreed that the formula is “complicated.” He took note also of the longstanding teacher pension subsidy for non-Chicago districts — featuring highly publicized retirement bonanzas for suburban administrators — as further complicating the matter.

Which indeed it does, according to the fiscally alert Illinois Policy Institute, who said that for many years these fat pensions had had “a massive — and now dire — impact on state education finances.”

Lilly observed that she would “like to put on the table a corporate round table,” meaning God knew what. In any case, as often happened in these forums, no one asked.

— more more more to come —