Progress Illinois: Chicago City Council will hold school closing hearing, homeless population questioned

By Matthew Blake

The Chicago City Council will hold hearings on what are rumored to be 80 to 120 neighborhood school closings, according to Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), head of the council’s education committee.

Thomas, who as education chairperson must convene such a panel, has previously been silent on a resolution signed by 32 aldermen calling for a school closing hearing. She told Progress Illinois that she would “absolutely” hold such a hearing.

“I do it every year,” Thomas says. “I didn’t need anybody to ask me to do it, but I welcome the resolution.”

Thomas would not give a hearing date, stating that she was waiting for the budget hearings to conclude. But she vowed it would be “before CPS puts out a school closing list.”

Last year, the Chicago Public Schools put out a list of schools in late November that would likely be closed or designated as a “turnaround”, meaning the school stays open but teachers and other staff are replaced. The Board of Education unanimously approved all 17 of these actions in February despite fierce protests.

The remarks from Thomas came during another marathon city budget hearing session today that focused on the Chicago Police Department and Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS).

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a $298 million budget for DFSS, which is a 15 percent reduction from 2012 spending. The department runs the city’s homeless services and several of its child-care programs.

Emanuel rolled out a new homeless plan this summer that privatizes overnight transport of homeless residents to shelters and uses the anticipated savings from privatization toward homeless youth programs.

But it is not clear if DFSS has properly measured the city homeless problem.

Per the instructions of the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development, which provides the majority of DFSS funding, the agency counts the city’s homeless population on one day of the year in the third week of January.

During this winter day, volunteers coordinated by DFSS and the University of Illinois-Chicago fan out across the city and record anyone who identifies as homeless. The last count, in January of 2011, found 6,500 homeless residents.

“Would the count be significantly different in the middle of the summer,” Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) asked department officials. Waguespack said that in his ward there are “ten times” as many homeless people between May and October than during the winter.

John Pfeiffer, deputy commissioner for DFSS, iterated that it “was mandated by the federal government to take place in the third week of January” and that the city did their best to be in strategic “hot spots.” Pfeiffer added that DFSS would attempt a count of just homeless youth in late spring, though the date and process of this count are not yet finalized.

Julie Dworkin, director of public policy at the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, says her organization has done a data extrapolation that finds the city has a total of about 100,000 homeless residents.

According to Dworkin, it is “hard to get a handle on what is needed” for city homeless services with the current counting system.

Most aldermen were simply trying to get a handle on the DFSS budget, asking informational questions of department officials instead of challenging Emanuel’s priorities.

Ald Walter Burnett (27th) asked how the expansion of the early childhood program would work. Ald. Pat Dowell inquired, “What criteria do you use to evaluate youth services?”

As Progress Illinois has examined, the mayor dictates the budget process.

Save for a small staff, aldermen have little more insight into the budget than a well-informed member of the public. There is no independent budget agency that serves the city council.