Pastor responds to paying protesters

January 27, 2012

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The Chicago pastor who has been paying people to speak out in favor of public school closings is responding to criticism.

Pastor Roosevelt Watkins, III said no one should be surprised that people are coming out in droves to support school closures. In a written statement issued Thursday night, he said, "the future of our children is on the line" and that he doesn't need permission to organize his community.

But Watkins has come under media fire for paying community members to attend public hearings, hold signs and cheer in favor of school closures. In his statement he called the money a stipend to offset expenses like transportation, food and childcare while his activists go to the meetings. WBEZ has reported protesters say they were being paid $20-$25 dollars.

Watkins runs the HOPE Organization; it assists low-income Chicagoans. The South Side organization has received more than $1.4 million dollars in contracts from CPS over the last year and a half. Watkins says none of that money was used to pay for rallying his community. The CPS Inspector General is currently investigating the actions.

Below is a copy of the full statement Watkins issued to the media on Thursday:

Statement of Roosevelt Watkins, III in response to recent media reports regarding the involvement of other faith leaders, parents, and community residents fighting to ensure every Chicago child has a quality education

“Recent news coverage regarding my involvement and the involvement of other faith leaders, parents, and community residents fighting to ensure every Chicago child has a quality education have been misleading.

“Like every other neighborhood, members of the faith community engage residents, parishioners and activists on how to affect change, including participating in community meetings on issues of significant importance – like education.  Often, for their time and involvement in training programs and activities, we provide a small stipend to help offset expenses such as transportation, food and childcare.  When community meetings occur from 6-8 PM on a Friday evening, it is not unreasonable to provide someone with a ride or money to pay for the dinner they are missing at home.

“None of these activities were funded by CPS Safe Haven and Safe Passage grants to the H.O.P.E. Organization.  I have called CPS and invited them to review the organization’s accounting and verify the grant has been spent appropriately.  I happily accept support from those who agree with my positions and what we’re trying to accomplish to improve our neighborhoods.

“The real injustice is what we should be talking about; the nearly one in three CPS students who are attending a failing school and the nearly 300 failing schools in Chicago of which the overwhelming majority of them are in historically underserved parts of the city.

“No one should be surprised Chicago’s faith community is working to empower parents and residents to speak out against failing schools.  We do not need anyone’s permission to fight for children in every corner of this city.  As community leaders, that is what we are expected do.  And it is our responsibility to stand up for our children and others who too often go unheard.

“The thousands of people who have participated in recent school action hearings are not malicious ‘stooges,’ as CTU’s Vice President stated.  They’re parents, grandparents, LSC members, community activists and faith leaders.  They’re black, brown and white.  What they care about is the future of their children and not the preservation of a failing school system.

“Are we supposed to stay silent when 19 out of 20 juniors at Crane are not college ready?  Do nothing when 30% will drop out in their first year and less than half will graduate – in FIVE years?  Should we sit by when only 37% of freshmen are on track to graduate at Dyett?  At Guggenheim, not even 40% of the children can read at grade level – a reality that has existed for years.  It would be a sin for us to do nothing.

“This isn’t the fault of students.  It’s the result of decades of neglect that has left us with no other option but to take dramatic action and, in some cases, support the closure and turnaround of failing schools. 

“There are some who feel we threaten the comfort of the status quo, but I and others have been in this struggle for years and we are committed to continuing our work to improve public education in Chicago.  The future of our children is on the line.”