Rahm Emanuel Is Having A Really Bad Summer

rahm emanuel

Photo: AP

For Mayor Rahm Emanuel, it’s been the summer of discontent on the big issues of crime and schools.The first-term mayor has spent much of it trying to avert a teachers strike and struggling to get a handle on the rise in homicides.

In some ways, Emanuel’s predicament stems from his leadership style. He’s known for identifying a goal, announcing a solution and marking down the achievement — even as the underlying problem persists.

Take the mayor’s goal of stronger schools. The solution was a longer school day. Emanuel tried to push the Chicago Teachers Union into working more hours, which only increased tensions with the union as labour talks loomed. Last week, Emanuel backed off and said he’d hire more teachers instead.

“This is a major victory,” Emanuel said. “The system no longer will relegate our kids to a second-class future with the shortest school day and school year.”

Students will spend the extra time taking physical education, music and foreign languages classes, but there’s no guarantee additional hours on those subjects will boost lagging district test scores. While the concession was heralded as a breakthrough in contract talks, many hurdles remain.

When it came to the mayor’s goal of safer streets, his solution was to put an extra 1,000 officers on the beat. The Chicago Police Department says that’s been achieved. Experts, however, argue that a side effect of moving officers away from targeted strike forces to beats has been an increase in shooting deaths and violent crime.

Sowing the seeds

The seeds of Emanuel’s tough summer were planted in the winter of 2011 as he ran for office.

In a cramped storefront in the Roseland neighbourhood, Emanuel declared his goal of making Chicago’s streets safer.

On that frigid Sunday in January, he told members of the Kids Off the Block community group that he would put 1,000 more officers on the street. He wouldn’t resort to the controversial method of moving cops from safer neighborhoods to more crime-ridden areas, however. Instead, Emanuel’s strategy relied on shifting cops out of desk jobs and the untested notion of adding 250 officers to the ranks by redirecting $25 million from special taxing districts reserved for economic development.

The rookie mayor quickly figured out that the tax shuffle would be hard to pull off. Emanuel refused, however, to jettison the large round number, forcing police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to figure out how to make good on the promise.

On education, lengthening the school day and school year wasn’t part of his original education platform. But by the end of the campaign, he saw the momentum building behind the movement — especially among the deep pockets backing the effort in Springfield, some of the same donors who bankrolled his mayoral campaign.

It became the focus of the mayor’s education push, though he never spelled out how much more time he wanted, how those hours should be spent or how he would pay for it.

The practical implications of Emanuel’s school and crime pledges are being felt. That’s left Emanuel feeling the heat this summer as Chicago has experienced a 38 per cent increase in the number of killings and teachers still are threatening a walkout as they try to resolve numerous sticking points in contract negotiations.

The crime problem

As a candidate, Emanuel said he would move uniformed officers out of desk jobs and take a closer look at officer “absenteeism” to make sure those who are on medical leave or limited duty were not abusing the system.

Shifting cops from administrative positions in buildings to the street proved easy enough. Getting hurt officers to rejoin the ranks is a bigger challenge. After being in office more than a year, Emanuel this month asked top aides to come up with a set of reforms to the department’s disability leave plan. That’s expected to take some time.

To reach Emanuel’s 1,000 cop pledge, McCarthy chose to disband specialised strike forces. The 450 cops that targeted violent hot spots were shifted to beat patrols, a move that amounted to a different assignment, but not more officers on the street.

When the police union criticised his moves, Emanuel modulated. He went from saying he put more cops “on the street” to more cops “on the beat.”

Technically, that’s true. Aldermen, however, are increasingly calling on the mayor to reinstate the strike teams, which they credit with tamping down violence and stopping crime before it happened.

The increase in homicides year to year has resulted in Emanuel announcing several new aspects of his crime-fighting approach. He wants to shut down problem liquor stores, knock down vacant buildings the city has identified as gang havens and push state racketeering legislation that gives county prosecutors more ammunition to go after gang leaders.

Perhaps most notably, Emanuel and McCarthy are saturating “conflict zones” with extra officers in the city’s most dangerous areas, an approach not unlike the strike teams that were dismantled.

Hard-pressed for help, the mayor also has welcomed the assistance of the Nation of Islam, and for the first time the city gave CeaseFire a $1 million grant in hopes the organisation staffed partly by ex-felons can help curtail summer violence.

The group, featured in a critically acclaimed documentary, has had an uneasy relationship with police, who have been wary about the group’s use of “violence interrupters,” people who are often former gang members. CeaseFire, in turn, prefers to keep police at a distance while it mediates disputes among gangs.

Emanuel, who boasts of his impatience as a virtue, now has to wait to give his larger policing philosophy time to work.

Strategy is a constant game of adjustment, but there are limits, former police Superintendent Jody Weis said.

“You’ve got to give them a certain amount of time,” he said, adding that there’s no definitive timeline of three months or six months.

“If you’re still losing the game, it’s probably time to start a new strategy,” Weis said. “The flip side of that is that you can’t announce a new strategy every other week.”

Seeking stronger schools

In contrast, Emanuel’s school strategy has remained steadfast. He has relentlessly beat the drum about Chicago students being shortchanged by one of the country’s shortest school days and school years.

In short order, Emanuel won approval in Springfield for the longer school day and year, then his handpicked school board angered the teachers union by cutting in half a 4 per cent raise that was in their contract.

If the union was on its heels at the start, in recent months it has knocked the mayor back on his. The state law Emanuel pushed through to raise the bar on a teachers strike vote to 75 per cent seemed like good strategy. When the union took a vote, despite Emanuel’s attempt to delay the balloting, about 90 per cent backed a walkout.

That was followed by an arbitrator’s report that largely sided with teachers. The arbitrator questioned why Emanuel’s school board would extend the school day when it doesn’t have the money to pay teachers for the increased time. The district has a $655 million budget gap, and the board plans to drain its cash reserves to plug it.

In the aftermath, Emanuel pitched an idea the teachers union proposed earlier. Last week, the two sides announced a tentative deal to hire nearly 500 teachers for subjects such as gym. The agreement means students will be in school longer, but the workday will remain the same for most teachers. The price tag will be up to $50 million.

Emanuel still won’t say where that money will come from, but he said the board will “obviously find savings to achieve our goal.”

The concession allowed both sides to declare victory. The teachers union had beaten back a yearlong push by the mayor to make them work more hours. Emanuel was able to proclaim the school day would be longer, even if the extra time might not be spent on core classes such as reading and maths.

A laundry list of issues remain, including class size, salaries and how pay increases are handed out. Job security, recall policies for fired teachers, a new evaluation system, health care costs and the length of the school year also are on the table.

Even so, the breakthrough last week has led Emanuel to declare that the school year will start on time.

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