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Leadership Changes At Chicago’s Old Town School Of Folk Music

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Old Town School of Folk Music's main campus in Chicago's Lincoln Square.

Old Town School of Folk Music’s main campus in Chicago’s Lincoln Square.

Carrie Shepherd/WBEZ

Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music announced Thursday its executive director, James “Bau” Graves, is retiring after going on medical leave several months ago.

Graves, 66, has been in the position for 11 years, according to a statement from the school. Deputy Director Rashida Phillips continues as interim executive director while Old Town looks for a permanent replacement for Graves.

Graves has been on medical leave since November because he was hospitalized for “serious blockages in three coronary arteries,” according to the Old Town statement.

Old Town has been roiled in recent months by Graves’ medical leave, a union push by music teachers, and a controversial plan to sell the school’s Lincoln Park campus.

Old Town Board of Directors Chairman Kish Khemani said the search for a new executive director will not be rushed so there’s “time to consider input from the community of teachers, staff and students as we develop criteria for this selection.”

Khemani’s nod to teachers is pertinent as faculty announced in December their plans to unionize. The Old Town Teachers Organization, or OTTO, tapped the International Federation of Teachers for its union effort. The group asked Old Town management to voluntarily recognize the union, but it has not done so. An election to finalize the union is scheduled for Jan. 16, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

At a rally in December, guitar teacher Mary Peterson said, “We need to work on enrollment, and getting people in the chairs, and having a plan of organizing the school in such a way that we keep it vital.”

Peterson and other faculty told WBEZ that teachers need a place at the table to strategize on the future of the school.

Some teachers said enrollment is down and marketing efforts by the school needs to improve. Those remarks came after Old Town said it was planning to sell its Lincoln Park location at 909 W. Armitage Ave. in 2019. Old Town said the sale was needed to help the school get on more stable financial footing, but the plan sparked an outcry and was put on hold.

Old Town School serves more 13,000 students a year.

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