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Paid protesters a new force in school closings debate

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Three busloads of protesters headed to school closings hearings from 65th and Peoria in Englewood. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

Chicago Public Schools has been holding hearings on its proposed school closings. There’s a new dynamic in the hearings this year: busloads of protesters being paid by pastors who support school closings.

This mother, who lives in Englewood, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, has made $50 off the public hearings to close down failing schools this year. She’s been to two hearings and got paid $25 each time to get on a bus and go.

ENGLEWOOD WOMAN: It was in an envelope. It was a $20 and a $5.

The money was handed to protesters after the hearings, when the buses returned to the churches where they’d picked people up.

ENGLEWOOD WOMAN: The first time I got it outside of the church outside 41st and King Drive.

That address is home to the HOPE Organization, run by Pastor Roosevelt Watkins. He’s led clergy support for Chicago Public Schools’ longer day and now for school closings.

ENGLEWOOD WOMAN: They had a list of names for everybody that was on the buses. She just called our names and gave us the $25.

This woman talked to me on the condition I wouldn’t use her name.

I was at a church hall where she boarded a bus last Friday to go to another hearing. The site, at 65th and Peoria, is a place where people get help paying their gas bill.

And despite the driving snowstorm, lots of people came out. Three school buses were parked in front. About 80 people were in the hall when I walked in, but I didn’t get to stay long.

MAN: Why are you here?
LUTTON: I came out because I’m covering the school hearings tonight…
MAN: Oh, no, no… this is something entirely different. So if you wouldn’t mind we’re gonna ask you to leave, darling.

I’ve been covering school closings for a lot of years, and most times, people are dying to talk to me, tell me about their cause. Not these folks.

LUTTON: Excuse me, what group is this?
WOMAN: I don’t know, no comment, I don’t know.
MAN: No comment!

Shortly after, the people filed out of the church hall and boarded buses headed to hearings. I followed the bus that went to the hearing on Guggenheim Elementary’s closing; drivers of the other two buses said they were headed to nearby Antioch Church, where a hearing on Reed School’s closure was being held.

Protesters hide behind signs in favor of phasing out Crane High School on the West Side. (WBEZ/LaCreshia Birts)

Around the same time those buses were loading, parent Sonja Singleton was getting on one of two packed school buses that left from a church-affiliated group on 55th Street, the K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center. Her bus headed to the hearing on the closing of Dyett High School, where a K.L.E.O. deacon spoke in favor of shutting the school down. Singleton says she hopes Dyett stays open--mostly, she says, because the school has been around since she was a kid. She has three children in the grammar school nearby.

Singleton says she originally thought she’d be getting a $20 lunch voucher at K.L.E.O. She came away shocked by “a lot of different opinions” she heard at the hearing; she said at one point she felt like a riot might break out between supporters and opponents of the school closing. When it was over, Singleton was given a $20 bill.

SINGLETON: When you stepped off the bus, everyone that stepped off the bus got their envelope. White envelopes, cash—the little short envelopes. I was the first one on and the first one off, cause there was a lot of people.

All across the city, on January 6 and January 20, at simultaneous hearings, there have been reports of paid protesters—some reading from scripts or holding signs supporting school closings. They’ve given confused testimony at hearings, others have hidden their faces from reporters’ cameras.

The Rev. Marrion Johnson spoke in favor of shutting Guggenheim school down on Friday night. I asked him about pastors paying people to protest.

JOHNSON: I certainly don’t know anything about people being paid to come out and testify. I know we’ve been offering stipends for coming out to training, because people in the community—they want to have a voice in this type of thing. And without being properly trained or properly educated, we just find ourselves talking among ourselves.

Neighborhood activist Charles Brown was at a church training last Thursday, January 19. It was held at the same church hall where people boarded buses for the hearings on Friday, January 20. Brown says the training was given by pastor Roosevelt Watkins himself, plus two other pastors from his Bethlehem Star M.B. Church. Watkins’ HOPE Organization has gotten more than $1.4 million in contracts from CPS over the last year and a half.

BROWN: He explained to us that we were going to have a mock meeting, but some things we must get straight: it’s all about the children.

Brown, who says he opposes closings, says Pastor Watkins never said explicitly that the group was in favor of school closings, but he said he believes the training did that subtly.

BROWN: He says on this side of the room—when we get people that get up and make a speech that’s opposite from our ideas—on this side, on the right hand side—I want you to boo. (Boooo!) And then when we get up and make a speech—one of our speakers—on the left hand side I want you to cheer. (Hooray, hooray!) I was on the left hand side, and that was my cheer, was supposed to be a ‘hooray.’

If it was the pastors’ goal to get people to speak in favor of school closings, they weren’t particularly successful.

The woman you heard at the beginning of this story says she went ahead and said what she really thinks: that no school should be shut down. She also refused to hold up the sign they gave her at the first hearing, which said something like, “You can’t defend failing schools.”

ENGLEWOOD WOMAN: There were quite a few people that were on those buses that don’t want to see the schools closed. Whether you were for or against them closing the schools, everybody got paid.

MARTINEZ: Why are we doing this?

That’s State Senator Iris Martinez.

MARTINEZ: Why exactly are you paying folks to bring them in to protest? Some folks didn’t even know what they were protesting about. To me, the only people who should be protesting are the people from the neighborhood who will be really directly affected by this school closing.

Martinez sits on a state task force charged with overseeing CPS’s school closings process. She says a new law she helped pass is supposed to make the school closings process more transparent this year, and give communities a voice before decisions are made. The task force adopted a finding on Jan 12 saying paid protesters and other “irregularities” suggest “at a minimum an attempt to ‘skew’ the results of the lawfully required public input process.”

State lawmakers on the task force say they have a meeting scheduled with schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard on Thursday. They plan to ask about the paid protesters.

MARTINEZ: We’re saying to Brizard: if you don’t want to abide by this law, then maybe— maybe—the next step is maybe putting a one-year moratorium because I don’t think people are understanding what the law really calls for.

Pastor Roosevelt Watkins did not return phone calls from WBEZ. He told the Sun-Times that stipends paid to protesters are from a “coalition of clergy” who have “money set aside for outreach in the community.’’

CPS says it has no idea who the paid protesters are. Spokeswoman Becky Carroll says hearings are open meetings, and everyone has a right to come and state their opinions.

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