Several West Side politicians discussed a variety of issues and aired community concerns with Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon over a working lunch at MacArthur’s Restaurant, 5412 W. Madison St. last week.
Attending the Dec. 9 meeting were state Rep. Camille Lilly (D-78th), Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele, state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-5th) and aldermen Emma Mitts (37th), Deborah Graham (29th), Michael Chandler (24th) and Jason Ervin (28th).
While no one issue dominated the nearly two-hour meeting, Simon explained that in her role as lieutenant governor she plans to push education.
Simon recently toured all 48 community colleges in the state. Her office is preparing a report to the legislature that outlines the colleges’ strengths and weaknesses. Preliminary findings, she said, indicate that half of all students “arrive at community colleges not ready for college level math.”
“So what that means is we got a system where public funds are paying to teach it once and then paying to teach it again,” Simon said, noting that the state doesn’t require four years of high school math.
She said, however, some high schools are beginning to address that issue.
Graham echoed Simon’s concerns. Graham said she has been working with a community action council (CAC) group around education issues, including ensuring students are prepared to transition from grammar school, high school and then to college. She noted so many high schools are now teaching what students should have learned in grammar school.
Graham noted one bright spot though. She said Austin schools were not caught up in the latest round of school closings. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has proposed closing several schools and turnaround 10 others.
In school turnaround, underperforming schools’ staff and teachers are terminated and then replaced. Graham said Austin schools “have progressed” but still fall below academic standards.
“We don’t have a school that is going to be turned around or closed, because we don’t want to disrupt it, because we are making good strides now,” she said.
When quizzed about education funding, Simon said the state is “looking to move in a direction of equitable and sustainable funding.” The current property taxed-based system creates a two-tiered system.
“So that means if you leave in an area with lots of wealth, you are going to have a good school,” Simon said. “I think what we need to build a political consensus around is [if] you live in Illinois that is all you have to do to be entitled to go to a high-quality school.”
Funding disparity, she added, is not a Chicago issue; it also affects downstate Illinois. She noted there are pockets statewide that get the “short end of the stick in terms of education funding.” She urged these folks to join forces since the state plans to change its taxing policies.
The conversation moved to juvenile justice issues. Steele said he wanted more diversion programs for youth instead of sending kids, especially minority youth, to juvenile detention centers. Steele blasted CPS as the main culprit in sending “more of our kids to jail than the police department.”
In one example, he said a student was arrested for calling his substitute teacher “sexy,” a comment the student made to another student. Steele believes securing more summer jobs and finding social programs can help youth instead of them being placed in the system. The state, he added, spends $42,000 a year to warehouse a kid in jail that does not provide any support programs.
“A lot of our kids in our community are getting records early in life, and that is what starts them on a bad track,” Steele said.
“Not institutionalizing people for any number of reasons is something that we need to be smarter about,” she said.
Simon also discussed innovative services to assist domestic violence victims. She said family violence is the most overlooked crime, and one where victims need the most services.
She noted a pilot program in Peoria allows domestic violence victims to get free legal counsel via Skype.
Mitts said she wanted to see an advisory board in the governor’s office on African-American issues. Having a board will ensure black issues across the city and state don’t fall through the cracks, Mitts said.
“My concern is that we connect government in a way that it benefits the taxpayers,” Mitts said.
Simon said her officer does not have a specific office on African-American affairs, but to have two point-persons elected officials can contact to address specific concerns.