Chicago Board ignored thousands of pages of testimony on changes

Between February 4, 2008 and February 16, 2008, hundreds of teachers, students, parents, and community leaders presented the Chicago Board of Education with dozens of hours of oral testimony and thousands of pages of documents and other materials in opposition to the most radical changes in the history of the nation’s third largest school system. Following months of rumors, CEO Arne Duncan had proposed the elimination or other radical changes at 19 public schools, the largest number ever. Hearings were scheduled to get public input on the proposals and to provide the Board with the venue to present its case in public. More than a thousand teachers, parents, students, community supporters and principals turned out to oppose the school closings and other changes during the February 2008 hearings. Not only did the Board of Education members not attend the hearings, but they also ignored most of the record that was created at great effort by those who testified. Above, Fulton Elementary School Principal Warletta Johnson-Brookins testifies at the February 11 hearings on the proposal to "turnaround" Fulton. Although CEO Arne Duncan had told the Board the reason for the Fulton "turnaround" was the "faiilure" of nearby Harper High School, Johnson-Brookins told the Board that only a handful of Fulton students went to Harper. Most, she said, went to Tilden High School. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.

While the majority of people who presented at the hearings spoke in opposition to the plans, equally significant was the fact that the opposition pointed out in virtually every case that the “facts” presented by Duncan’s staff were in error. Thus, the pretext for the radical actions were undermined. The materials and testimony were presented in hearings across Chicago that were attended by thousands of people. At every hearing, the public was told by hearing officers paid by the Board that the materials they were presenting would be read carefully by Arne Duncan and the members of the seven members of the school board before the Board voted on February 27, 2008 at its regular meeting on the proposals.

When confronted by some of the parents at the Board’s February 27 meeting with the statement by CEO Barbara Eason Watkins that the proposals were a “done deal,” Board president Rufus Williams insisted that there was a “process” that would be fair, open, and listened too. Williams was lying, as were the hearing officers, the top administrators of the public school system, and other top school system officials. The parents, teachers, principals, students, and community leaders who presented their testimony to the Board might as well have dumped their paperwork into a recycling bin. Not one of the complete reports was read by one member or the Board, nor did Arne Duncan himself attend the hearings or read the materials that people presented.

But the members of the Chicago Board of Education did not read any of the materials presented to them by people who had been misled into believing that they would. In fact, in a cynical example of how Chicago currently views the citizens whose children actually attend its public schools, Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins, and the members of their staffs did not even bother to prepare the thousands of pages of testimony and other materials for the Board prior to the tumultuous meeting of February 27. Although Duncan withdrew his proposal to shutter the Abbott school because of “underutilization”, he continued with plans tageting 18 other school, despite the fact that they had taken tens of thousands of hours of people ranging in age from pre-school to the elderly.

Most of the materials were simply ignored.

The seven members of the Board, if they read anything at all, read truncated reports from hearing officers paid for by the Board, some of whom, as previously reported in Substance, had blatant conflicts of interest. Many were working at the same time for major outside law firms with significant business with the school board. While Substance continues an examination of the rush to close or radically transform public schools (in some cases, turning their buildings over to private operators as charter schools; in other cases creating a legal fiction to justify the firing of staffs), it has become clear that the Board of Education and top school officials deliberately misled the public throughout the process Williams had told parents to respect. Children who wrote hundreds of letters to Arne Duncan and the Board members have been ignored.

Parents who researched the Board’s misleading presentations and proved the Board in error have been ignored.

Principals who presented facts that contradicted the Board’s staffs’ claims have been ignored.

And the Board has refused to be interviewed by Substance about the cynical actions, which culminated in the Board members voting — unanimously and without discussion or debate — in favor of every proposal brought before them by Arne Duncan. 


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