Call for elected school board brings loud cheers at Chicago Board of Education meeting

February 2008 Board meeting most heated in recent memory

At the January 23, 2008, Chicago Board of Education meeting, President Rufus Williams expressed anger at one public-participation speaker who charged that some Board member had said the planned reconstitution/ turnaround or other changes to eighteen Chicago Public schools was a “done deal.”

Williams demanded that everyone follow what he called “the process”. By that he apparently meant the public hearings that were scheduled between February 4 and February 16 on the proposed school closings, consolidations, and “turnarounds.”

After numerous public hearings for the 19 schools during the month of February and after the public participation at the February 27, 2008, Board meeting, all 19 schools were dealt with roughly as originally planned. Minor changes to the original plans were made at Abbott and Andersen elementary schools. Abbott won’t be closed; Andersen will still be closed, but its students will be allowed to attend the new school being placed in the Andersen building (rather than sent to nearby Pritzker elementary). There were a few other minor shifts before the Board voted.

But the major changes that had caused the greatest controversy remained. Arne Duncan’s proposal that the three small schools inside Orr high school be closed — and Orr reopened as a general high school run by a “turnaround team” — was approved. So were Duncan’s proposals that Harper High School and four elementary schools (Copernicus, Fulton, Howe, and Morton) have their staffs fired and a “turnaround team” come in. Each school that was originally planned to be a turnaround school will have its staff replaced, including the principal, assistant principal, and the non-teaching staff (according to each Board Report). The students will remain. Staff will have the opportunity to reapply for their old positions, Duncan has said, but the recent history indicates that none of them will be hired to become part of “turnaround”. The three Orr High School “small schools” (instituted by Duncan at the beginning of his term) will be joined once more to become one high school, but with a new staff. Orr High School will become a teacher training center under a group called the “Academy for Urban School Leadership” (AUSL).

The February Board meeting was heavily attended and extremely volatile.

Sixty-three persons signed up before 9 a.m. to speak at the meeting. Hundreds of people wanted to attend the meeting and were either forced to go to a “holding room” or barred from even entering the building by armed police. Seats in the Board chambers that should have been available for public participants to sit in were marked before the meeting as “Reserved” to be occupied by Board of Education staff members. This forced other interested persons to have to sit in the over-flow room (on the 19th Floor) while waiting their turn to speak. Since only two speakers on each issue were allowed, many who signed up to speak did not get to speak, since the two speakers from their school had already spoken. All but a handful of the speakers spoke vehemently in opposition to the Board’s plans.

Rufus Williams did not answer most speakers, but instead simply thanked each speaker.

Many emotional remarks were made by the public participants:

“We can’t throw our teachers out. Why push our teachers out? You certified them.”

“They should fire all of you without pay.”

“CPS — You’re not God!”

Most of the center section of the small meeting room consisted of “Reserved” seats. Additionally, several rows on the two sides were also reserved, or otherwise occupied by CPS administrative staff. Many asked why all those in the “Reserved” seats were not in the holding room. Quotes from angry citizens continued:

“What if administrators had had to reapply for their positions when the BOE moved from Pershing Road to downtown?”

Not having an elected school board has led to class issues and corporate control of America. “What is going on today is analogous to the “N” word.”

“Delay the vote.”

“Consult with the experts in the field of gifted education.”

“Why is the business community allowed to run the schools?” “We need to look at facts and not just listen to the anecdotal comments of parents” (at Sherman, a Fall 2006 “turnaround” school where attendance is down).

“There seems to be a disconnect here today.”

Repeated shouting out from the audience also took place. At one point, someone called Rufus Williams “Napoleon.”

Nevertheless, when all of the public participation was over, the Board, as usual, recessed into “Executive Session.” A few hours later, the Board, as usual, came out of “Executive Session” and voted, without discussion or debate, to approve all of the Board Reports placed on the agenda by Arne Duncan. 

This article was originally published in the March 2008 edition of Substance.


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