Duncan loses 4-2 in roll call vote...Board vetoes plan to house charter school in Gregory Elementary School

For the first time since he was appointed CEO of the Chicago Public Schools by Mayor Richard M. Daley, Arne Duncan suffered a major defeat in a vote by the Chicago Board of Education late in the afternoon of March 26, 2008. But the discussion of several proposals by Duncan during both the public participation section of the Board meeting and following the Board’s recess into executive session indicated that the Board will be subjecting Duncan’s proposals to more scrutiny than he has ever received before. Above: March 26, 2008. Parents and community leaders from Gregory school question how CPS determined that there was space available inside Gregory Elementary School to house a new “campus” of the LEARN charter school. Data from the Duncan administration differed greatly from school supporters (above) who challenged the plan. The school board later voted down Duncan's controversial proposal. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.

In a late afternoon roll call, the Board voted 4 - 2 to reject Duncan’s proposal to expand the L.E.A.R.N. charter school by giving it part of the Gregory Elementary School. Both are in the North Lawndale community of Chicago’s west side. Those voting against Duncan’s proposal were Board members Norman Bobins, Alberto Carrero, and Clara Munana. Board President Rufus Williams also joined the majority against Duncan’s proposal. Those voting for Duncan’s proposal were Tariq Butt and Peggy Davis. The seventh member of the Board, Roxanne Ward, had left by the time the vote was taken.

Duncan was not available for comment following the meeting’s adjournment just before 7:00 p.m. At the time of the stunning vote, the question before the Board was whether to approve a proposal, submitted by Duncan (and supported during the meeting by Duncan, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins, New Schools chief Josh Edelman, and Board Demographer Jimm Dispensa) to turn over a portion of the Gregory Elementary School (3715 W. Polk St.) to the L.E.A.R.N. charter school for the first year of what Duncan claimed was a planned expansion of L.E.A.R.N. into additional “campuses.”

The proposal by Duncan was entitled “Amend Board Report 07-1024-EX3” (etc.) and was on the Agenda on March 26, 2008 at Board Report 08-0326-EX6.

Had Duncan’s motion been approved, the L.E.A.R.N. charter school, currently located at 1132 S. Homan Ave. would have been allowed to open a second “campus” at the Gregory Elementary School (3715 W. Polk St.). The Board Report submitted by Duncan, however, didn’t even mention the fact that there was already a school occupying the building at 3715 W. Polk, and that school was the Gregory Elementary School. It was only when parents and community leaders from Gregory noticed that someone was holding a meeting in their school a few days before the Board meeting that the plan became somewhat public. Leaders from Gregory mobilized to oppose Duncan’s plan and question the data presented in support of it.

After lengthy discussion both during the pubic participation section of the meeting and in the late afternoon business meeting (which follows a recess into executive session and is almost empty), for the first time in more than six years, the Chicago Board of Education meeting lasted for more than an hour following the Board’s return from executive session on March 26, 2008.

The most controversial issues before the Board were 14 proposals by Arne Duncan, the Chief Executive Officer of CPS, to change various elementary and high schools. Each was controversial in its own way, and, like with so many radical changes in the schools during the past seven years, none had been subjected to full public debate.

But the quick action of parents and teachers at Gregory Elementary — along with surprising support from members of the Board who have become more critical of Duncan’s proposals — stopped Duncan in his tracks and put the expansion of the L.E.A.R.N. charter school on hold. According to Duncan’s Board Report, “In March 2008, LEARN submitted a material modification [to its charter proposal] to (a) identify a site for the new L.E.A.R.N. Charter School campus anticipated to open in 2008, (b) change the grades served at the 2008 Campus and (c) change the first yar capacity enrollment at the 2008 Campus. The campus will be located at 3715 W. Polk Street and will serve 198 students in grades K-3. In successive years, the 2008 Campus will grow to serve 600 students in grades K-8. A public hearing, as required by statute, was held on March 20, 2008 at 3715 W. Polk St. The hearing was recorded. A summary report of the hearing is available for review.”

Parents and others from Gregory Elementary School, which is located at 3715 W. Polk, had signed up to speak during the public participation portion of the meeting. They pointed out that the Board’s demographic claims about Gregory were inaccurate, and noted that the “public hearing” that the Board held had not even been announced to members of the Gregory school staff and community.

The expansion of charter schools inside existing public schools has been policy for the Duncan administration for five years. Despite controversies at every school in which the expansion has been done, what has happened prior to the March 26, 2008 vote was for Duncan to propose that a charter school move into “available space” in an existing building and co-occupy the school. At several schools where this has been done, the exiting public school has been told the occupation by the charter school would be “temporary” — just as Gregory was being told on March 26, 2008. Generally, however, “temporary” has become permanent, to ultimately resulting in the destruction of the public schools and the takeover of the public school building by the charter school. At Wadsworth and other elementary schools that have been occupied in this manner, however, the Duncan administration has subsequently approved the takeover of more and more space within the existing public school by the charter school, until the existing public school is effectively evicted from the building.

These expansions are also generally done without consulting the community or public schools, as was done with Gregory. Last year, teachers, parents, and local school council leaders at Parker Elementary School on the South Side told the same story of not being told of plans to locate a charter school inside their building. Like the Gregory scenario, the Board was given data claiming that Parker was “underutilized” to justify the imposition of the charter school. Even the LSC president was ignored while the plans were made.

Members of the public noted that the Board Report submitted by Duncan on March 26, 2008, didn’t even mention the fact that the expansion of the L.E.A.R.N. charter school was being done into an existing public school. Only those who knew that Gregory was located at the address on the Board Report knew that a real public school was being targeted, again, by a charter expansion.

In the face of sharp questioning from Board President Rufus Williams and Board member Norman Bobins, Duncan, Eason-Watkins, Dispensa, and Edelman were unable to answer some of the most basic questions about the proposal.

Duncan finally told the Board that L.E.A.R.N. would only be inside the Gregory building for one year, pending its construction of a new facility for its new “campus.”

But when questioned by Board members, Edelman, who had been chief of “New Schools” (now “New and Charter Schools”) since his appointment by Duncan last summer, admitted that the L.E.A.R.N. school has yet to locate a facility for its new campus. Edelman and his staff did not explain how L.E.A.R.N. was going to find and fund a new building within a year between the summer of 2008 and when they were supposed to move our of Gregory in 2009. Also controversial was the claim by Duncan and the Board’s demographer, Jimm Dispensa, that there was more than enough space within the Gregory building to house L.E.A.R.N.

According to Dispensa’s analysis, Gregory has what Dispensa terms a “design capacity” of 1,200 students. According to the people from Gregory, the actual capacity of Gregory is about half that. Neither Duncan nor Dispensa was able to explain the great difference between the two claims.

The discrepency regarding demographic claims by CPS officials has been growing in recent months. During hearings on Duncan’s proposals to close, move, or reconstitute 19 schools in February 2008, several schools challenged Duncan’s demographic data. These ranged from the Gladstone Elementary School (which is being evicted so the building can be used by a new “campus” of the Noble Street Charter High School) to Andsersen, DeLa Cruz, and Roque DeDuprey elementary schools. In each case, the Board’s demographic claims were contested and refuted by people in the schools.

The Board discussions on March 26 raised several additional questions. Rufus Williams demanded that Duncan’s proposal to change Oscar Mayer school be modified so that the diversity of the current Mayer school not be lost. In announcing proposals to replicate the Disney Magnet School and the Burroughs Elementary School into “Disney II” (which is being placed inside the Irving Park Middle School in the city’s Old Irving Park community) and “Burroughs II” (which is eventually supposed to occupy a new building, but which will be placed inside Pope Elementary School next year), Duncan told the Board repeatedly that the proposals by Burroughs and Disney had been approved after a rigorous screening process conducted by the “Renaissance 2010 Fund.”

But Duncan failed to mentioned that the “Renaissance 2010 Fund” is a private organization, headed by people from the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, which controls a great deal of money and which promotes charter schools and other privatization agendas in Chicago.

Board members did not ask Duncan where the Board had approved the delegation of such vast powers — including the power to designate which Chicago public schools to “replicate” — to a private entity over which the public has no control and which most members of the public don’t even know exists. 


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