By Ben Joravsky

It began with a call summoning principals to headquarters.

So on May 20 principals from schools across the city came to Paul Vallas’s office, where the big chief’s minions broke the news: in the future, about 40 schools would start classes at 8 AM and end them at 1:30, an hour earlier than usual. The purpose was to save money by pairing bus routes, and though exact details weren’t available yet, there was no need to ask questions since the deal was done, the decision irrevocable. In addition, the principals were advised not to tell parents, there being no need to rile the masses, who would be notified at an appropriate time.

Somehow the secret leaked, and as word spread, thousands of furious parents (at schools such as the one my own children attend) found themselves facing the prospect of rousing children from bed at five to stand on the corner at six and return home in the early afternoon with no one to watch over them.

“I’ve seen a lot, but this may be the worst,” says Eric Outten, cofounder of Schools First (a parents’ group) and chair of the local school council at Burnside Academy on the far south side. “It’s the lack of inclusion. It’s the fact that Vallas feels he can dictate anything. This time I think he may have crossed a line.”

Though the announcement caught people by surprise, this was a fight waiting to happen. Vallas rode into office on the school reorganization of 1995, which gave him far more authority than previous superintendents to write budgets, dole out contracts, overrule LSCs, and hire and fire employees.

Yet for all his power, busing remained a $100 million-a-year line item just beyond his reach, since it was used for legally required (and hugely popular) special-education and magnet programs. (The system also buses thousands of children away from overcrowded schools.) To Vallas the busing seemed a colossal waste of money. He convinced some schools to pair routes voluntarily, and he saved more money by limiting the distances other buses would travel. But ultimately he decided these cuts didn’t go far enough, so he opted for unilateral change. (Vallas did not respond to this writer for comment.) Starting in August, the 80 elementary schools that are serviced by at least nine buses would be paired; a bus would pick up children and drop them off at the “early schools,” then gather a second batch of kids for the “late schools.” This change would save $4.4 million a year that could then be spent on other things.

Within an hour after Vallas’s aides delivered the news to principals, it had reached activists from the Chicago Association of Local School Councils (CALSC), a watchdog group. By the end of the day phone lines all over the city were buzzing over the plan.

How dare Vallas put grade-schoolers on a coal miner’s schedule? Didn’t he realize how dark and cold that street corner would be in the winter? Didn’t he understand how hard it would be to get children to bed in the spring and early summer while the sun was shining, so they could get enough sleep and wake up the next morning?

Most after-school programs begin long after 1:30 PM. Who would take care of children let out in early afternoon if their parents were working? Did Vallas and the board intend to create thousands of latch-key children with nothing to do but sit at home alone and watch TV?

It’s true that a handful of schools, including Burnside, already operate on an early schedule. “But that was our decision. No one told us we had to do it,” says Outten. “It’s worked well for us because most of our students come from the surrounding community, the buses don’t have as far to travel, and the kids are not on the corners that early. But what works for us might not work for others. The schools aren’t factories. One size doesn’t fit all.”

Aggravating the reaction to Vallas’s decision was the way it was made and announced. “Something so sweeping should have been publicly discussed and debated. Working together we may have found a solution that made sense,” says Rich Unger, chair of the LSC at Thorp, a magnet school on the far northwest side. “But they clearly wanted this to be a secret. When I heard, I called my principal and she said, ‘How did you know about this?’ We weren’t supposed to know.”

According to Unger, Vallas was instituting a change that would throw thousands of lives into chaos and force more working parents out of the public schools and city. For what? To slice a trifle from a $3.4 billion budget? And did anyone really know whether pairing would save $4.4 million? Or take into account the safety risks to children?

“Since the system implemented about 70 paired routes in 1995, the accident rates have soared,” says Dan Schlademan, organizing director for Service Employees’ International Union Local One, which represents many school bus drivers. “There were 180 accidents in 1995 and 653 in 1996 and 434 for the first six months of 1997. We have put in a request for the updated information–the board does not give this stuff out freely.

“The problem with pairing is that drivers are in a greater rush to make their routes. It’s actually worse, I think, for kids from the later-starting schools, since they’re the ones standing on the corner until 11 in the morning or 5 in the afternoon if buses break down on the first run. You’ll have parents heading off to work, only to have to go home to get their kids at the corner. From my perspective the change is crazy–and to jam it down people’s throats at the end of the year is unbelievable.”

On May 26 the Tribune broke the story with a front-page headline, “Busing plan to hit magnet school pupils hard.” Outraged parents bombarded Vallas with calls and faxes, but his position grew more rigid. Parents, he told reporters, would get used to the change–they’d have all summer to adjust. And if they didn’t, so what? He had tried to cajole schools into accepting changes voluntarily. But, as he told the Sun-Times, “Jesus Christ could have rolled out the policy, and it would have been rejected.”

To veteran schools watchers, this was vintage Vallas. “I’m not saying Vallas is a bad person, but he has way too much power,” says Outten. “He has no financial oversight, since the General Assembly put a moratorium on the School Finance Authority. The [mainstream] media pretty much puts out whatever he says. The corporate community loves him. They truly believe that he’s one of them and that they know best so he knows best. People see all this power and they get afraid to challenge him. He has a reputation for punishing people he doesn’t like. He’ll call you out–he’ll name your name. Parents retreat. They say, ‘Maybe if we kiss his ring, he won’t punish our school’–never mind what he does to all the others. This is not good for our children. It’s not healthy to have so much power vested in one person. We have a situation that would be unacceptable to many of these corporate leaders if it were in their hometowns. Look at Winnetka–when they wanted to open a second high school they had a conversation. The parents talked and the officials listened. They responded because they respect the people. We don’t have that respect. And the people here who command respect will be the first to flee for Winnetka every time Vallas does something that riles them up.”

Over 200 parents, most of whom had just learned about the plan, packed a board meeting on May 27 to protest. For the most part, Vallas doodled on a notepad or talked on his cellular phone as parents heckled and howled and chanted, “Are you listening? Are you listening?”

As the meeting broke up, one parent (OK, Pam Fox, my wife), cornered Vallas. “Would you want this to happen to your children?” she said.

“Leave my children out of this,” he snapped.

“Do your children go to public schools?”

“Don’t ask about my children. I don’t ask you about yours.”

“Obviously not.”

In the aftermath, parents are organizing. “We’ll be discussing the matter at our annual convention, Saturday, June 6,” says Sheila Castillo, director of CALSC. “Anyone who wants more information should call us at 312-663-3863.”

Mayor Daley, reeling under this barrage of protest and perhaps concerned about next year’s mayoral election, has asked Vallas and board president Gery Chico to be more flexible. Vallas has not publicly rescinded the plan, but he has sent letters to LSCs asking for ways they might reduce busing.

Most observers figure Vallas will cut deals with each LSC. “He’ll never say, ‘Oops, I was wrong, that was a bad decision,” says Outten. “Instead, he’ll try to slink out, either by cutting deals or just quietly letting the whole thing drop. The ultimate result is that a lot of people will be demoralized, and a lot of people will leave and we will all have had to waste a lot of energy. And for what? For whom? The funny thing is he gets all this credit for being such a great manager, but really it’s a lousy way to run a school system.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eric Outten photo by Bruce Powell.