By Jeff Coen, Noreen Ahmed-Ullah and John Chase
Chicago Tribune reporters
December 25, 2012
The panel appointed to give the public a voice on Chicago school closings is being advised by experts with political and financial ties to City Hall, fueling questions about its independence from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration.
The head of the school commission, former ComEd CEO Frank Clark, has promised his panel will make its own decisions without regard to the wishes of the mayor. At the same time, Clark has sought help from a platoon of public relations and education consultants with a stake in the school debate.
The commission's hearings are being organized by public relations executive Desiree Tate, a member of Emanuel's "kitchen Cabinet" of African-American advisers who received more than half a million dollars in contracts from Chicago Public Schools before he became mayor. Tate said she is working for free for the commission.
The commission also is being advised by the Civic Consulting Alliance, which has provided free advice to Emanuel since the start of his administration and has links to an organization pushing to replace the traditional neighborhood schools with privately run charters.
Their involvement follows a pattern in which business professionals with ties to the mayor have often worked behind the scenes to shape the public conversation on controversial plans he is pushing, from schools to his speed-camera program.
The Chicago Teachers Union has criticized the involvement of the consulting alliance, arguing that it is supporting Emanuel's charter school agenda that will close more schools where union teachers work. Union members walked the picket lines in September in part because of fear that Emanuel would radically increase the number of charter schools here.
Last week, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett faced renewed skepticism after the Tribune reported that a Sept. 10 internal CPS document showed the administration already had discussed how many schools to shutter and in what areas of the city — including a scenario for closing 95 schools and installing charter schools in some CPS buildings.
"Until the engagement process is completed, until the commission finalizes its work by gathering information and recommendations from the community, there will be no list" of schools targeted for closing, Byrd-Bennett said in response to the report.
Clark has likewise declared that there is no predetermined number of schools to be closed, but he refused to answer the Tribune's questions about the role of the consultants vis-a-vis his panel, the Commission on School Utilization.
The consulting alliance is a pro bono government consulting arm of the Commercial Club of Chicago that has worked with the mayor's office and school officials since the days of Emanuel predecessor Richard M. Daley. But the Commercial Club also founded an organization called New Schools for Chicago, which has the expansion of charter schools as its goal.
New Schools President Phyllis Lockett is a former leader of the consulting alliance who still sits on its board; she is credited by New Schools with helping triple the number of charters in Chicago in recent years. The consulting alliance shares a downtown office suite with New Schools.
"New Schools for Chicago and the Civic Consulting Alliance are two distinct and separate organizations, each with their own priorities and governed by their own boards," Lockett said. "New Schools for Chicago is not involved in any way with the Utilization Commission or school actions."
The CEO of the consulting alliance, Brian Fabes, dismissed any suggestion that his group favors charter schools and said New Schools is not a client. "CTU can make whatever connections they decide they want to make," he said.
Fabes characterized his group's assistance as largely logistical — including making photocopies for meetings — although a Tribune reporter recently observed him going over notes from one meeting with Clark before the chairman addressed the media. Fabes said he did not recall that conversation.
"We don't take positions, we don't advocate, we support them in what they want to do," Fabes said of the commission.
Fabes said he has not spoken with the mayor about school closings, despite his group's regular access to the mayor's office.
The alliance was a key player in Emanuel's 2011 transition to office. As part of its role, the group brought in Accenture, one of the world's largest financial consulting firms, to provide free advice to the new administration. The company subsequently received a no-bid contract from the Emanuel administration that pays it a percentage of every dollar saved on other City Hall contracts.
The alliance also has previously helped CPS leaders analyze the teachers union contract and helped recruit another outside consultant to become the CPS chief transformation officer, a position that now oversees the school-closings strategy.
Tate, who has often been at Clark's shoulder during the commission's public hearings, also has a long history with the school district. She has brought in more than $600,000 in school contracts since 2005, much of it through her previous firm, Tate & Associates, according to city records.
She said Clark, a fellow participant in "kitchen Cabinet" meetings with Emanuel, asked her to help out and she agreed to do so for free.
"We're overseeing the messaging," Tate said of her current firm, D&T Communications.
She said she has not spoken with Emanuel about her role and believes her work for the district to hold training sessions for parents on school involvement is what led Clark to bring her into the process. She said that has gone on for 15 years and she expects it to continue.
"He knows I have an independent nature," she said of Clark. "All that work I have done has been to advocate for the parents."
It is not the first time that Emanuel allies have taken an important role in steering the public debate over school controversy.
As tension between the mayor and teachers was building earlier this year, radio ads criticizing the union were produced by John Kupper of AKPD Message and Media, a firm that has been on retainer for Emanuel's campaign committee. Kupper, a key political strategist for Emanuel, declined to discuss his talks with the mayor, and Emanuel said he had no knowledge of the ads before they aired.
In February, when his administration was first pushing for a longer school day and closing some schools, the Tribune identified another Emanuel political ally working quietly in the background. Greg Goldner, who ran Emanuel's successful 2002 bid for Congress, dedicated the skills of his Resolute Consulting firm to write news releases for pastors, produce a video presentation and help plan community events supporting the mayor's agenda.
The Tribune later revealed that Goldner had taken up another controversial cause Emanuel was pushing — automated speed cameras near schools and parks. Goldner was the brains behind a grass-roots coalition that supported cameras, a group that was funded by Chicago's red light camera vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc.
Redflex eventually was disqualified from the speed camera bidding after the Tribune disclosed that the company had failed to report internal corruption allegations stemming from the city's red light program.