September 30, 1927: The trial of school superintendent William McAndrew

September 30, 2011

The story was a front-page newspaper sensation on September 30, 1927. Chicago school superintendent William McAndrew was on trial.

The Board of Education had hired McAndrew in 1924, telling him to clean up the school system. That he had done. Most of his reforms were applauded. But he'd also antagonized many people in the process.

McAndrew had become an issue in the 1927 mayoral campaign. Ex-mayor Big Bill Thompson was challenging incumbent mayor William E. Dever. Thompson claimed the superintendent was unpatriotic, and had brought foreign influences into the schools.

Thompson beat Dever in the April election. McAndrew had nine months left on his contract. That was too long a wait for Thompson. He began looking for a way to get rid of McAndrew.

In August the Board of Education replaced 288 teacher-clerks with new employees. By now the Board was controlled by Thompson, and McAndrew felt this was an attempt to bring political patronage back into the system. He resisted the order.

So the Board suspended McAndrew. The superintendent was charged with "insubordination." A public trial before the Board was scheduled, for the purpose of removing him from office.

When the proceedings began on September 29, the national media saw it as the latest example of goofy Chicago politics. McAndrew refused to avoid the mess by simply resigning. "They'll fire me all right," he told Time magazine. "But they'll have to stage a burlesque show to do it."

And it became quite a show. Day after day, witnesses paraded before the Board, testifying about McAndrew's un-Americanism. He wouldn't let students collect money to restore the historic ship "Old Ironsides." He ordered prints of The Spirit of '76 removed from schools. He made nasty comments about the Boston Tea Party.

Worst of all, the superintendent had brought in subversive textbooks--one of them even stated the British considered George Washington a traitor!

McAndrew sat through it all, pointedly reading the newspaper. After two months, he had enough. He stood up and asked when the Board would deal with the specific charge against him. Not getting an answer, he walked out.

The trial continued without the defendant. The Board finally wound things up and found McAndrew guilty on March 31, 1928--two months after his term in office was officially over.

McAndrew later sued the Board for lost salary, and Mayor Thompson for libel. He dropped both suits when his "conviction" was voided by the county circuit court. And once again, peace and harmony reigned in the Chicago Public Schools.