'So only the happy are shown...' PURE suggests CPS executives who pack Board meetings do them on 'furlough' days

A brief letter in the August 2 Chicago Sun-Times revealed a large reality that Chicago's daily newspapers have simply refused to cover over the past several years. January 28, 2009. More than half the seats available in the "public" section of the Chicago Board of Education chambers are marked "Reserved" before every meeting. For the January 28, 2009, meeting, the front seats surrounding the podium from which speakers address the Board were reserved for "jim Dispensa" (who does demographics research for the Board), "New Schools" (a place holder from someone assigned by that department) and "Adrienne Curry" (the Board's "Policy Analyst"). The status of those seats is maintained by security personnel, who order parents, teachers and students who are not entitled to sit in those seats out of the seats prior to the beginning of the public participation session at each meeting. Above, the vast majority of the seats in the large center section of the Board Chambers were reserved prior to the Board meeting on January 28, 2009, the first meeting at which Ron Huberman served as CEO. The Board is particularly careful that the seats (above) which are behind the speaker's podium reflect well-dressed smiling people who also contribute to the image of diversity that CPS wants to convey. Seats to the right of the podium (above) were reserved for (left to right) Board Demographer James Dispensa, anyone assigned from "New Schools," and one of the Board's planning people, Adrienne Curry. At the January 2009 Board meeting, more than 50 of the approximately 70 available seats in the center section were "reserved" in this manner. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. Once a month, when the Chicago Board of Education meets, nearly half the seats in the Board chambers on the fifth floor at 125 S. Clark St. are filled not by citizens wanting to attend a public meeting, but by CPS bureaucrats who are carefully seated in seats marked "Reserved" prior to each meeting. These Board employees, none of whom are teachers, then sit smiling throughout the entire meeting so that when the TV cameras film each meeting only the happy are shown.

The Letter, from PURE executive director Julie Woestehoff, follows:

Furlough schedule suggestion

Mayor Daley is demanding that top Chicago Public Schools staff (along with folks from other city agencies) take six unpaid days off to help balance the budget.

Parents United for Responsible Education offers a furlough schedule that would assure uninterrupted operations at schools: Aug. 26, Sept. 23, Oct. 29, Nov. 18, Dec. 16 [2009] and Jan. 27, 2010.

Why won't we miss CPS staff if they are gone on those days? Because those are Chicago Board of Education meeting days when CPS always assigns staff to fill up about half of the "public" seats in the board chamber -- specifically, the ones positioned within camera range.

This arrangement keeps the real, typically disgruntled members of the public out of the meeting room and offers the cameras a Potemkin Village of satisfied, supportive faces to assure Chicagoans that all is well in our schools.

You can see this for yourself any Saturday at noon when the board meetings are aired on the Cable Access Network's Channel 21. These CPS employees aren't doing a thing but filling chairs. So, take the days off, CPS staff, and let some of us who pay your salaries sit down!

Julie Woestehoff,

executive director, Parents United for Responsible Education

Packing the meetings and Potemkin Villages

May 27, 2009. All of the people in the foreground in the above photograph are employees of the Chicago Board of Education. Every one is sitting in an assigned seat by prior arrangement that the Board has refused to disclose. In order to maintain a certain "look" during the Board meetings (which are televised on Cable TV), the Board assigned a large number of its central office staff to fill the "Reserved" seats that will be in camera range during the filming of the proceedings. While the people in the seats varies from year to year, two constants are that the people are (a) always well dressed and smiling as if they were pleased at what the Board is doing and (b) arrayed in a diversity rainbow. The Board's diversity rainbow requires that members of various racial and ethnic groups, as well as males and females, be alternated for the cameras. Not only does the assignment of the "Reserved" seating exclude members of the public who have legitimate grievances to bring to the Board, but it leaves the public, via TV, with the impression that those who approve of the Board's policies come representatively from all of the racial, ethnic and cultural groups in Chicago. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Since Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley took over the city's public schools in 1995, the number of public meetings of the Chicago Board of Education has been reduced by about 90 percent, while the amount of private and secretive business conducted by the Board has increased immeasurably. Prior to the mayoral putsch that create America's first "Mayoral Control Model" with the passage of the Amendatory Act by the Illinois General Assembly in 1995, the Chicago Board of Education would meet twice a month in public meetings. The Board also had numerous committees on issues ranging from finance and taxation to curriculum and facilities. Each of those committees me — in compliance with the Illinois Open Meetings Act — at least once a month. Mayoral control obliterated all that, reducing the number of public meetings. By the late 1990s. when Chicago's mayoral control model was firmly in place, the Board was meeting once a month, for as brief a time as possible. Over the years, less and less business was discussed publicly. The only portion of each Board meeting that seemed somewhat open to the public was a brief two-hour "public participation" session. By the beginning of the 21st Century, the Board of Education of the third largest school system in the USA was spending less time on its public meetings than the school board's of most of the school districts in the USA. Furthermore, there was no discussion of the major items on the Board's agenda. Month after month, the Board would emerge from closed secret session (which follows public participation) and dispatch an agenda of 200 or more pages in less than 15 minutes, almost always without discussion or debate. February 27, 2008. After more than 2,000 people had testified against the proposed closings, turnarounds, phase outs, and consolidations of public schools during hearings held in late January and early February 2008, more than 1,000 showed up to protest at the Board of Education meeting. Met with phalanxes of police on the street outside the meeting and then penned in the lobby and arcade downstairs from the meeting, the majority of the members of the group never even got into the Board's headquarters building at 125 S. Clark St. in Chicago, let alone into the Board chambers on the fifth floor. Those who were able to get into the building were taken by express elevator under security guards to holding rooms on the 19th floor. They were told by CPS officials that there were "no seats" in the Board chambers. In fact, half the seats in the room where the Board would meet had been "Reserved" hours before the meeting. As the protests against the policies of Arne Duncan and the Chicago Board of Education grew larger and more organized after Duncan began closing schools in large numbers in 2004, the Board increased the number of "Reserved" seats at its meetings and used police powers more and more to keep the public out of the Board meetings. The meetings, in turn, rubber stamped all of Duncan's proposed closings of schools. During the TV cameras inside the Board meetings were left to record what appeared to be approval of the Board's actions from the pre-selected "public" seated within camera range. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. By the beginning of the 21st Century, one of the key features of the Board meeting was the exclusion of the public from public meetings. This was done prior to each meeting by the process of "reserving" seats inside the Board's chambers on the Fifth floor of the Board's headquarters building at 125 S. Clark St. in Chicago. The "Reserved" seats are clearly marks with little white signs prior to each meeting. Board officials have been unable to tell Substance who authorizes the creation of those "Reserved" seats, and who assigns them to which bureaucrats.

By the time the Board meeting begins, as many as half the small number of seats in the Board meeting room are filled with highly paid Board bureaucrats. Almost none of them ever has any business at the meeting, and since they all work in the Board's headquarters building, were they needed, they could easily be called into the meeting from their work places on the other floors.

Filling the seats at Board meetings has become, as PURE noted in its Letter to the Sun-Times, a longstanding habit.

Board of Education meeting days are not the only days when dozens of $90,000 to $120,000 per year (and, sometimes, up) people from the massive school system's central bureaucracy are strategically situated in that meeting room, but for more than seven years, they have been the most important. Whenever the Board holds "Board hearings" on the proposed closings of schools, this same group is assigned to attend the hearings and act like they were Board members. The Board is acutely conscious of promoting its images where they eye of the TV camera roams, and most of the Board's rare public activities are carefully stage managed to create the best images for the TV.

The turning point: April 2002 and the beginning of the 'Renaissance'

May 27, 2009. Again on May 27, 2009, the majority of the main seats in the center section of the Board chambers at 125 S. Clark St. were marked "Reserved" prior to the Board of Education's meeting. By May 2009, the four seats at the end of the first row were being "reserved" for James Deans (title subject to change), Jim Dispensa (still the Board's demographer), Beth Heaton (an up and coming mid-level functionary in the Office of New Schools), and policy analyst Adrienne Curry (seated writing above). Just before the Secretary began to read the procedures to be followed at the meeting, a number of parents from Reinberg Elementary School who were seated in the fourth row (above) were told they were not allowed to be in those seats and had to move. The seats in the front row, as usual, were filled with people arranged for their diversity on TV and ordered to smile at all times. All are employees of the Chicago Board of Education, most at salaries well above the annual salaries of the city's teachers. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. The manipulation of the meetings has increased since Arne Duncan was appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to be Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on July 1, 2001. During the first year Duncan held office, the Board of Education met monthly, but alternated its meetings between the Board's headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. and schools across the City of Chicago. The practice of alternating meetings had begun under Duncan's predecessor, Paul Vallas, and had simply continued when Vallas (and Board President Gery Chico) were abruptly replaced by Duncan (and Board President Michael Scott). The meetings that were held in the schools were more accessible to parents, teachers, and others who worked for a living. Year after year during the late 1990s and into the 21st Century, the Chicago Board of Education would meet one month at its headquarters (which were moved from 1819 W. Pershing Road to Chicago's Loop 12 years ago) and the next month in a school. It had become a tradition.

That tradition ended when Arne Duncan began closing schools as "failures" and implementing Mayor Daley's program — ultimately called "Renaissance 2010" — during the second year of Duncan's term as CEO.

The turning point was in April 2002.

After nearly 1,000 protesters showed up to protest the first round of school closings at the Board's April 2002 meeting at Herzl Elementary School at 3711 W. Douglass Blvd. on the West Side, Arne Duncan ordered that the Board never again meeting the community. Since April 2002, the Board of Education of the City of Chicago has met monthly at the Board's well fortified headquarters three blocks south of Chicago's City Hall. The meetings have always been held in the mornings, excluding the majority of teachers, parents, and students from participation.

February 27, 2008. When some of the largest protests in history hit the Chicago Board of Education meeting on February 27, 2008, CPS officials created the largest number of "reserved" seats in the Board chambers (all but one of the rows in the center section, above) in order to keep the majority of the protesters who got into the building away from the televised meeting that was about to take place. Above, the number of "Reserved" seats on February 27, 2008 in the center section (which is shown when the TV cameras pan to the speaker at the speaker's podium) went almost to the back wall. Hundreds of protesters were turned away from entering the building itself, while hundreds of others were barred from the meeting room and placed into three "holding rooms" 12 floors above the meeting. There, they were told to watch the meeting on closed circuit TV under the watchful eye of Board security guards and Chicago police. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.When protests against Board policies increased throughout the first decade of the 21st Century, the Board depended more and more on media manipulation and the police. After a month of dramatic hearings on Arne Duncan's proposals to close more than a dozen schools (six of which were to be subjected to a novelty program he called "turnaround"), hundreds of people showed up on February 27, 2008, to protest against Duncan's proposals and to attend what was supposed to be a public meeting of the Chicago Board of Education.

The majority of the protesters never even got into the Board's heavily secured building at 125 S. Clark. They were blocked by dozens of Chicago police officers, who were backed up by more than 50 others deployed out of sight. Those who did get into the building were taken by express elevator to the 19th floor, where they were ordered to disperse into three large "holding rooms" each of which had a large TV set in the front. The holding rooms were guarded by Chicago police officers and Board of Education security people. Most of the people in the holding rooms who had shown up at the Board meeting to show their opposition to the changes the Board was about to make in dozens of schools never go into the Board meeting itself. They were kept in the holding rooms.

Another Chicago export to Washington, D.C.

June 24, 2009. By the time the "Reserved" seats were placarded for the June 24, 2009, Board of Education meeting, a large number of those who had once been holding those seats had been purged by Ron Huberman and replaced by a new group of crony administrators. The evolution of the "Reserved" seat and executive seating sections of the Chicago Board of Education chambers provides the careful observer of dictatorship with the same kinds of clues that were provided during the annual May Day parades in Red Square in Moscow during the era of Soviet Communism. The placement of functionaries adjacent to the Supreme Leader indicates a lot more than the whimsy of the person assigned to making up the seating charts and taping the little signs to the chairs each month. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Not all of the members of the public were treated like the majority, however. A handful of carefully selected parents who were brought to the Board meeting to speak in favor of what the Board was going to do were escorted into the building by Board executives and allowed to sit in the Board chambers, while most of the others from their schools were excluded. Two of those, Ricky Fields and Catonya Withers, became regular apologists for "Turnaround."

One year after the dramatic Board meeting of February 2008, Catonya Withers was brought to Washington, D.C. to appear with President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the staged media event during which Obama and Duncan announced the "Race to the Top." Listening to Withers, the nation had no way of knowing that for every apologist for Duncan's Chicago policies more than 100 parents had opposed them. 

Final edited version of this article posted at August 4, 2009, 2:00 a.m. CDT. If you choose to reproduce this article in whole or in part, or any of the graphical material included with it, please give full credit to SubstanceNews as follows: Copyright © 2009 Substance, Inc., Please provide Substance with a copy of any reproductions of this material and we will let you know our terms — or you can take out a subscription to Substance (see red button to the right) and make a donation. We are asking all of our readers to either subscribe to the print edition of Substance (a bargain at $16 per year) or make a donation. Both options are available on the right side of our Home Page. For further information, feel free to call us at our office at 773-725-7502.


August 3, 2009 at 6:05 PM

By: Is There Any Sanity Left?

Shhh. Board Members At Work

One day a month, members of the Board of Education interrupt their schedules and descend to meet with the public. That is, they hold a meeting among themselves and allow a few of the hardier specimens who manage to make it through the endurance trial (travel downtown hours before the meeting in order to stand in line, in order to sign up, in order to speak to the glitterati for 2 minutes) to appear before them.

One would think that the other 29 or 30 days of the month when they lounge around together drinking smoothies and contemplating grand new ideas, ala the Chicago Way, of saving public education as we know it would be enough for their altruistic consciences. They should be more than willing to devote up to 8 hours to hear every member of the public who holds the masochistic notion that he/she should speak to the Board members.

But no. The Chicago BOE has a charge: “It establishes policies, standards, goals and initiatives to ensure accountability and provide a high quality, world-class education for the 21st century that prepares our students for success in college, work and life.” They don’t take that lightly. Sorry public, you have to move to the back of the bus.

If you’re still skeptical about the business that keeps the Board from listening to all the concerns of the public, just read one of the initiatives that they accomplished and then hang your head in shame.

“Continued the Ballroom Dance Initiative, which involved 25 schools and provided 1,300 fifth grade students more exposure to dance, music and character education.”

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