Bluff Trade

The strike that would have emptied the Sun-Times city room last Monday was scheduled to begin at noon. To no one’s surprise that perilous deadline passed without incident. An hour later the two camps were still negotiating at the Executive Plaza, and strike headquarters remained almost empty.

Newspaper Guild members and reporters from other media were calling in, on the mistaken assumption that this was where to hear the hottest skinny. All assistant business editor Shane Gericke and reporter Scott Forneck could tell them was that guild negotiators were studying a last-minute offer. “It’s minute by minute,” said Gericke. “It’s second by second,” said Forneck.

Gericke and Forneck were staffing the phones in the big, dingy suite the guild had rented for a month at 65 E. Wacker Place. Someone called from inside the city room. Reporters there were standing around with their coats on, wondering what the hell to do. Gericke allowed that as long as they were in the building, management was legally entitled to some work. “They’re probably within their rights to have everyone sit down,” he advised.

The other phone rang, and Forneck picked it up.

“That’s interesting. ‘BBM says we’re not striking.”

Gericke got off his line.

“That’s Fox,” Forneck said again. “They say ‘BBM says we’re not striking.”

Suddenly both phones were ringing. These were guild members who’d been listening to the radio and wanted to know what was up. Gericke and Forneck had no idea. Gericke tried to reach someone on the guild team.

“This is so exciting,” he said. “It’s like being a reporter trying to get stuff from your own people.”

Once again journalists had proved that the only story they’re sure to be beaten on is their own. And once again guild-management negotiations at the Sun-Times had followed the hallowed trail to the 12th hour and beyond. With pickets already stacked outside the building for immediate distribution, and surly endomorphs patrolling the corridors against vandals, the two sides as always came to an agreement. If ritual was violated this year it was only in the high level of delight later expressed.

“It sounds like a good one,” Gericke exclaimed as specifics finally started coming his way. “There’s a lot of good noneconomic stuff, and there’s a big, big increase in the pension contribution the third year.” Management’s last concession was to drop its demand for reduced night-differential pay, an issue, Gericke reminded us, that “was a huge sticking point.”

Management had enjoyed reminding the union that under the old contract the average salary of the 250 guild employees was nearly $52,000–fourth highest of the nation’s guild papers–and that overtime and night differentials drove the actual average up to $55,000. Exploiting the fact that the Sun-Times Company now was controlled by the publicly traded American Publishing Company, which listed the Sun-Times Company separately in its economic documents, the guild had enjoyed visiting the Securities and Exchange Commission’s reading room and then rubbing management’s nose in the financial figures on file there. The guild insisted on an immediate 9 percent pay raise, which it said the company could easily afford, while management stuck with an equally absurd 1 percent raise spread over three years.

These positions didn’t change until early Monday. Once common sense began to prevail, the two sides moved rapidly to a package offering an immediate 2 percent increase and another 2 percent in April, followed by 2.5 percent raises in the contract’s second and third years.

“This contract is certainly within our economic parameters,” said James Artz, the Sun-Times Company’s senior vice president for human resources. If everyone’s as satisfied as everyone sounds, we wondered, why couldn’t this deal have been done months ago? “You have to ask the guild,” said Artz.

We put the question to Jerry Minkkinen, the guild’s executive director. “If anybody divines an answer to it, please let me know,” he said.

Unfair to School Reform

Has school reform affected student safety? A study released October 31 by Chicago’s libertarian Heartland Institute doubts it but can’t be sure.

“There is a widespread perception that Chicago’s public schools are becoming increasingly dangerous places,” writes Northwestern law professor Daniel Polsby. First he offers a list of arrests on or near public school property: for the ’90-’91 school year, 9,820; for ’91-’92, 10,500; for ’92-’93, 9,790; and for ’93-’94, excluding June, 8,600. “If one assumes that June 1994 arrests were equal to the average number of monthly arrests that year (782), then total arrests in the 1993-94 school year would reach 9,382, a slight improvement over the previous year.”

Polsby continues: “This improvement cannot readily be attributed to school reform efforts, however, since the City of Chicago generally has been experiencing a lower crime rate in the past two years. This data series is too short and the changes from year to year too small to provide a basis for estimating a trend.”

Polsby’s second attempt at a conclusion is no more impressive. He presents a chart graphing the number of criminal attacks against school personnel for every 10,000 students. Although Polsby observes that this ratio “has been climbing steadily,” his original point of reference is 1984, six years before reform kicked in. It was 12.9 in ’84 and 21.2 in 1992, the latest year for which Polsby can offer a figure, but the climb hasn’t been steady at all. There was a decrease as recently as 1990.

“We have just three points in a weak data set: insufficient information to document a real trend,” Polsby admits. “With respect to violence against school personnel, then, I can conclude only that school reform has had no apparent positive effect.” Feeble stuff.

School safety was just one of several topics examined in Polsby’s pessimistic report on school reform. But at the Sun-Times education writer Rosalind Rossi was so unimpressed by the whole report that she decided not to cover it at all. “These numbers we got from the Heartland study were stale, in some cases two years old,” she told us. “We’d already reported academic figures much fresher than this.” Besides, the Consortium on Chicago School Research would soon be releasing its own study of schools’ test scores from 1987 to 1994. For the first time, a study would allow for the students who’ve skewed previous studies by changing schools in midyear. “These numbers will be much fresher, much more accurate, much more long-term,” Rossi said. “At that point Heartland can have its say.”

The Tribune didn’t take Polsby’s report much more seriously than the Sun-Times did. A story by education writer Jacquelyn Heard was buried in section two, and Heard gave plenty of space to Polsby’s critics. The Heartland Institute was accused of grinding axes, tarring reform because its heart lies with a voucher system. The proreform group Designs for Change denounced Polsby’s findings as “selective and biased.”

That might have been that. But Designs for Change didn’t intend to let the matter drop. Executive director Donald Moore wrote Jack Fuller, publisher of the Tribune, to complain that the Tribune had published a “major article” about a report based on what it knew was “obsolete, selective, and inaccurate data and data analysis.” (Throughout, the emphasis is Moore’s.) The Tribune knew this because Designs for Change had “alerted” Heard beforehand to Polsby’s “deceptive document.”

“We believe that the Tribune’s decision to publish such a superficial and inaccurate article about this blatantly biased study and the manner in which evidence refuting the study’s conclusions were used (and not used) by the Tribune deserves your careful scrutiny,” Moore wrote. All in all, “We observe a major overall decline in the quality of the Tribune’s coverage of the Chicago Public Schools.”

We’re tempted to say Moore would have been wiser to calm down and let Polsby’s study waft away into oblivion. But a couple of matters Moore brought up with Fuller did deserve to be mentioned.

One is the Tribune article that ran the day after Heard’s. This piece by V. Dion Haynes introducing a new reform group, the Chicago Forum for School Change, alluded to the Polsby study. Haynes said it had found “the drop-out rate was still high, standardized test scores were low and violence was out of control.”

Nothing in Polsby’s study and nothing in Heard’s account of Polsby’s study had suggested “violence was out of control.” If this was the line the Tribune now intended to take, Moore was right to step in immediately.

The other thing was the Catalyst study. Catalyst is a monthly journal devoted to reform, and the cover story of its November issue, which had been messengered to the papers days before Heard’s story ran, begins:

“Violence in Chicago’s public schools has declined steadily and dramatically over the past four years as schools have spent more of their own discretionary money on security.”

Money available to them thanks to school reform.

Catalyst goes on to say that its analysis of police data showed that the number of arrests on school property for crimes “involving the physical safety of children” had dropped 18 percent from 1990-’91 to 1993-’94, with “arrests for the most serious crimes, such as aggravated battery, arson, murder and robbery,” down 46 percent and the number of weapons confiscated down 61 percent.

“This should be wonderful news for a city whose top concern is violence, and a newspaper that has campaigned against violence against children,” Moore wrote. “Instead, the Tribune chose to ignore the Catalyst study and to report [in Heard’s article] that the Heartland study proved that ‘classroom violence continues apace.'”

Jacqueline Heard didn’t report that the Heartland study proved that. She merely wrote that the Heartland study said that. And her article then pointed out that this conclusion wasn’t supported by the study’s own data.

But it’s also true that she didn’t mention Catalyst’s much more thorough investigation. To our regret she wouldn’t tell us why she didn’t.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.