‘Safe passage’ expansion comes with low pay, decentralized hiring

August 20, 2013

Chicago Public Schools faces new questions about 600 workers it’s training to stand guard as part of the district’s “safe passage” program.

The workers, hired to watch 53 routes for elementary students whose schools were closed this summer, will earn $10 an hour for a split shift totaling about five hours a day, according to the district.

Under those terms, the program will not have many “quality individuals who will stick with the job,” said Dwayne Truss, assistant director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, a Chicago group that advocates for parents. “You’re setting it up to be high-turnover.”

Other questions surround how district officials chose 18 community groups that will employ the workers. “We’re not sure how they made the selections of these companies [or] how the companies selected their workers,” said Kristine Mayle, financial secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Mayle pointed to a contracting scandal last year in CPS food services and warned that the safe-passage program, budgeted for $15.7 million this school year, could include patronage hiring that compromises security along the routes. “Our biggest concern is that kids are going to be hurt,” she said.

CPS says its search for the venders was wide. “We did an extensive request-for-proposal process, canvassing the entire city to try to attract community-based organizations,” said Jadine Chou, the district’s safety and security chief.

Chou says the 18 groups came from a pool of 47 applicants. “It was a very rigorous and very solid process, filled with integrity, to make sure that we were objectively hiring the best possible people we could find,” she said.

The selected groups range from the Alliance for Community Peace, an organization housed in a North Side church, to the Target Area Development Corporation, which has three offices in the U.S. Midwest and three in South Africa.

Rev. Autry Phillips, Target Area’s executive director, described his group’s main purpose as community organizing. “But we also build capacity within our communities,” he said. “Thankfully, with the safe-passage program, we’re able to actually provide jobs.”

A CPS “fact sheet” about the program says the district held a “preliminary job fair in partnership with the vendors” on July 1. The fact sheet says the venders received 2,800 employment applications.

Chou said the 600 new safe-passage hires will join 635 employed last year in the program, which has focused mainly on high schools until now. “Everyone who signed up to be a safe-passage worker understands that this is not just a job,” she said, pointing to Chicago’s frigid winters and dangerous streets. “You have to be a committed person interested in the safety of our children.”

“We’re working closely with our venders to make sure that there is a solid quality-control monitoring system” to oversee the workers, Chou said.

While the district praised the safe-passage workers, a spokeswoman would not allow WBEZ to conduct interviews freely among roughly 250 who attended a training session Monday at Roberto Clemente Community Academy, a Northwest Side high school.

The district says training for the new safe-passage workers will wrap up Wednesday. The school year begins next Monday.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.