Off the Hot Seat, on the Record

Without fanfare, a new columnist has settled into the Sunday Sun-Times. Identified as “an attorney who is active in civic affairs and has written on Hispanic and educational issues,” George Munoz is in fact past president of the Chicago Board of Education, and he’ll remain on the board until May.

For now, Munoz will try to keep his opinions on educational matters in check. We called him because we wondered what they are; does he think he can better serve Chicago schools by writing for a newspaper than presiding over the school board?

So it appears. “I was president of the board and part of my responsibility was to defend it,” he told us. “It hurts me to realize that to defend the school system gets in the way of what is best for the school system.”

The public schools, he knows now, do not need defending: the one thing the system does well is perpetuate itself. “I discovered after many years of heading the system–and this was something I adopted almost as my reason for living during my years as president–I underestimated its ability to be clever, to survive.

“For the bulk of the folks in it, morale is low, motivation is low, but the unknown is worse. So they continue on the same course.”

The school board–which Munoz describes as “11 unpaid volunteers with no background in this area . . . who are somehow supposed to manage a $2 billion corporation”–has decided it’s against decentralization, against any shift of decision making to the local level. Munoz disagrees, yet he’s a skeptic of the current enthusiasm for reform.

“The whole reform movement has basically been concentrating on who shall hold the decision-making power,” Munoz said. “The main problems–strikes, dropouts–aren’t being addressed because they are too sensitive and insoluble. The public doesn’t want to hear more money’s needed. A strike is a pure product of the finances of the school system, and nobody wants to talk about that.”

What would Munoz do? “You need a heck of a lot more money, which is clearly unrealistic,” he said. “Or a fresh start.” To get one, Munoz would carve the system into two or three separate smaller systems, each a demographic cross-section of the city. Within each new system decision making would be placed at the local level.

The immediate virtue of new school systems would be the chance to wipe out the ancient contracts that paralyze the old one. Munoz has in mind contracts that compensate teachers for poor pay and horrendous working conditions with nearly absolute job security based on seniority; contracts that the cafeteria help and building engineers negotiate separately, putting them outside the authority of the principals of their schools.

“When I got on the school board, my first question was, how many people did we dismiss for incompetence last year, out of 42,000?” Munoz said. “The answer was, of course, they didn’t know.” And later he realized the true answer was none. “For incompetence alone it’s too difficult. You have to have something added to it–theft, fraud, sexual misconduct . . .”

Yet the teachers, Munoz believes, are not the problem, they’re the solution. “It boils down to a very old bureaucratic system so set in its ways that no matter what we change, their morale is not going to be impacted. And if we don’t impact that we haven’t changed anything.”

What about giving teachers a deal? we wondered.

“No question,” Munoz said. “If they got better pay and working conditions they could care less about the other things. But that quid pro quo won’t occur because you need a lot more money to raise salaries and improve working conditions.”

Munoz sounded to us like a guy who hopes against hope. We’ll have to read his columns to find out. He made it clear that radical change, however unlikely, remains urgent.

“It’s very cruel to think of this as a long-range process,” he said. “I don’t want to sacrifice another generation of kids.”

Gay Papers: The Battle’s Over

Last spring Tracy Baim, editor of Windy City Times, walked out on publisher Jeff McCourt. Some of her staff went with her. What Baim had most wanted to do was buy McCourt’s newspaper; but if he wasn’t selling then she’d start her own. So she founded Chicago Outlines.

We hear Baim had told investors that McCourt was bored and burned out. The Times was in trouble; Chicago needed a gay newspaper with quicker blood.

It got two. McCourt brought in interim editor Albert Williams, an excellent journalist (well known around here as a Reader theater critic), and soon the Times was better than ever.

“I think he thrives on competition,” Baim now says about McCourt.

For the eight months two good papers went head to head, Chicago’s gay community was the winner. But the battle’s over. The market few believed big enough to support two weeklies wasn’t, and this week Outlines begins monthly publication.

Baim puts another spin on the change. “I don’t think it’s a question of who blinked first,” she told us. “I think all along we’ve been heading toward a much more in-depth publication.”

She has a point. The papers were never mirror images of each other, the Times being newsier and Outlines more meditative. But the critical distinction was economic: Outlines never broke even; and the Times, according to McCourt, enjoyed “our greatest period of growth” in the paper’s three-year history.

A recent Wall Street Journal overview of the gay press backs up that claim. “The Windy City Times in Chicago is one of the few gay newspapers making progress wooing mainstream advertisers,” said the Journal. “‘Windy City Times isn’t like the gay rags in some cities; it runs reviews and entertainment stories like a regular daily paper,’ says Laura Siegel, a media buyer for movie studios. ‘It provides the kind of readers movie companies are looking for–an urban audience with a lot of money to spend on entertainment.'”

When a market’s dominant paper makes the right moves, it’s hard to overtake. In addition, Outlines lost points last October with a high-minded editorial critical of the new wave of ads for 900-number sex conference lines: “The verbal and visual imagery of many of the ads they are attempting to place with us continues the emphasis on the unhealthier aspect of ‘junk food sex,’ an emphasis most gays and lesbians are trying to put behind them.”

Which made some gays furious. In a plague era, phone sex was a harmless recreation they didn’t need to be lectured about. Windy City Times writer J.H. Johnson fired off a letter (which Outlines published) denouncing “the shrill voice of a few muddled, bogus radical feminists,” and claiming the real reason Outlines wasn’t running 900 ads was because it couldn’t get any.

In response, special sections editor Jorjet Harper, who’d followed Baim from the Times, accused Johnson of “self-righteous outrage” in the face of a “younger, more progressive publication.” Today, Baim says all the critical mail originated with the Times, with the exception of a letter from a lesbian activist who nominated Outlines for “pompous poops of the year.”

“We have phone sex ads,” Baim told us the other day. “We were opposed to the images in the ads we turned down. We’re not a Playboy or Penthouse. We’re more like a New York Times.”

Outlines stopped weekly publication with its edition of January 28, whose full-page announcement of the new format ran under the jaunty headline “Outlines Expands to Monthly Newsmagazine.” The justification for this note of new-fields-to-conquer lies in Baim’s promise of more pages (from 32 in the January 28 issue to 56 plus a 20-page literary supplement this week), an expanded entertainment section, a bigger staff, more out-of-town correspondents, and a circulation that will cover Illinois and reach into at least five other midwestern states.

“We have plans for this to break even in six months,” Baim said.

McCourt wrote his paper’s account of the new Outlines. “As a weekly,” he wrote, “Outlines had experienced little discernible advertising growth since its inception. Many issues have been published with less than 20% paid advertising content, an unusually low amount for a controlled circulation weekly.”

Baim called the tone of McCourt’s article “negative energy”–not a trifling complaint in a community that values solidarity. “We’ve gotten over it,” she said, “but there’s obviously a lot of harsh feelings over there.”

Next week a new managing editor takes over many of Williams’s duties at Windy City Times. He’s Mark Schoofs, 26, a former contributor to the gay San Francisco Sentinel by way of Yale.

Lacking a direct competitor, as well as an editor as wise to the ways of Chicago as Albert Williams, McCourt might run into trouble now keeping the Times on track. That wouldn’t surprise Baim. “I think the community will suffer in the beginning because there isn’t anybody else out there,” she told us.

We hope she’s wrong about that, as wrong as we want McCourt to be in his assessment of the new niche Tracy Baim hopes to find for Outlines.

“I don’t quite see that niche,” he told us.

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