DOUBEK: Aldermen, do your job and ask the hard questions

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Chicago aldermen, stop playing games and start airing it out.

The Sun-Times recently reported that Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) will jump through several parliamentary hoops next week to force Education Committee Chair Howard Brookins (21st) to schedule a hearing he previously canceled about CPS changes to the way it handles special education students and services for them.

OPINION

“Parents of special education children — and all taxpayers in this city — are demanding answers, and they’ve waited long enough,” Munoz said in a press release.

Indeed.

A year ago, the Better Government Association reported that Chicago families were facing obstacles trying to get special education services for their children in CPS because of a new policy that takes a tougher approach to identifying, evaluating and educating students with special needs.

Parents, teachers and activists have been complaining about cuts, problems, the mixing of special education funds with general funds and more since December 2016.

WBEZ Chicago Public Radio investigated the 2016 overhaul and found “officials relied on a set of guidelines — developed behind closed doors and initially kept secret — that resulted in limiting services for special education students, services like busing, one-on-one aides, and summer school.”

And, last September, the BGA and the Sun-Times reported on the drowning death of Rosario Gomez in a CPS pool. Fourteeen-year-old Gomez, who was autistic and had trouble communicating, drowned in Kennedy pool when he was allowed in the pool during gym class, despite the fact that he could not swim and was not wearing a lifejacket.

Enough.

New Interim CPS Superintendent Janice Jackson told WBEZ’s Sarah Karp last week that the special-ed changes “rolled out too much too fast” and agreed “we have to take another look at this.”

Air it out. Aldermen, your job is to serve your constituents — the families in your wards — not the administration or the CPS management.

It’s time for a hearing that lets parents, students, activists and experts from around the country publicly examine the problems and search for solutions.

That would be transparent, accountable and useful public service.

To give aldermen credit, this week the human resources committee will discuss Ald. David Moore’s (17th) call for a hearing on reports of racial discrimination at the city’s water department that first surfaced last May.

If there is a hearing, it ought to be a full one, which means hearing from more witnesses than just the commissioner. Aldermen can learn as much talking to the city’s inspector general, affected employees and experts on culture change. Don’t stop there.

Too often in Chicago, when problems are raised or questions are asked, the response from elected officials and their appointees is to duck, defend and delay.

When the BGA and Crain’s Chicago Business reported last year that city officials diverted $55 million in tax increment financing district funds to renovations at Navy Pier rather than spend it as it should have been on urban blight, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declined comment. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward should have benefited from the TIF funds, held a brief hearing and promised she’d consider having a more exhaustive one. It never happened. Dowell said she “felt better” after hearing from administration officials — no outside experts or community voices — at a last-minute addition to a finance committee meeting.

Despite 11 aldermen who occasionally try to challenge the mayor and his majority, the standard operating procedure at City Hall is to delay and make it go away. That’s got to stop.

We have a paralyzed GOP-led Congress and President Trump whose only agreement in the past year has been tax changes, but still, Congress manages to perform its oversight function and regularly holds hearings on Russia and its meddling in our last election.

In Springfield, Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-dominated Legislature couldn’t pass a budget for two years, yet state lawmakers still have managed plenty of substantive public hearings. In the past few months alone, state lawmakers have held hearings on the powers of inspectors general and on a controversial Medicaid contract. They will launch a hearing this week into the deaths of 13 veterans from Legionnaires’ disease at a Quincy state veterans’ home.

Are some of those hearings politically motivated? Of course, but they still allow for a public airing of problems and a search for solutions.

So, are some aldermen aligned with Emanuel really going to stymie attempts to talk about what’s happening to special-needs students in our schools? The lack of oversight and public hearings on real challenges in Chicago is simply shameful.

Aldermen, to borrow a phrase from the current national anti-sexual harassment movement, your time’s up.

Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director for the Better Government Association.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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