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School watchdog probes reports of paid protesters

Thaddeus Scott points where he boarded bus protest school closings outside HOPE organizati6921 S. Halsted. File Photo. | John J.

Thaddeus Scott points to where he boarded a bus to protest school closings, outside the HOPE organization, 6921 S. Halsted. File Photo. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 27, 2012 9:59AM

The Chicago Public Schools inspector general said Wednesday he is investigating reports that bused protesters were paid to carry signs or read scripts at school closing hearings.

News of the probe came as Mayor Rahm Emanuel sloughed off questions about whether the practice was appropriate.

Meanwhile, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) blasted “paid protesters” he said showed up on three buses at Jan. 6 hearings on whether to phase out Crane High School. He urged Chicago Public School officials to omit their comments from the hearing’s record.

Their appearance was “embarrassing” and “subverts our public process ... wherever the money came from,” Fioretti said during the school board’s monthly meeting.

The Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday reported that two men said they were duped by the offer of cash to attend Jan. 6 school hearings while seeking help with their energy bills at the Englewood office of the HOPE Organization, headed by Rev. Roosevelt Watkins of the Bethlehem Star M.B. Church. Both said they didn’t realize until the last minute that they were supposed to side with the phase-out of Crane High or the closure of Guggenheim Elementary — proposals they didn’t support.

Joining a caravan of protesters in buses, one man said he was paid $25 just to show up and then given a pre-made sign; the other said he was promised $50 to speak and given a pre-crafted script.

Watkins has acknowledged he organized busloads of protesters to attend the Jan. 6 hearings but said any “stipends’’ they received were for pre-hearing “training” on “community organizing.” He could not say when that training occurred. Both men insisted they received no training.

The mayor was not concerned.

“The ministers have a right — who have been long involved in school reform, longer school day, turnaround schools, who don’t accept the status quo — to speak up,” Emanuel said Wednesday. “And I’m proud that people are having a discussion about the school system.”

Pressed repeatedly if he had a problem with what critics have called “rent-a-protesters,” Emanuel said “I’m not speaking [about that]. I’m speaking about the fact that ministers care about their schools and care about their community.”

However, Schools Inspector General James Sullivan told the Chicago Sun-Times Wednesday that he is “investigating to see if the allegations are true and, if true, if there’s anything wrong with that.”

Fioretti Wednesday joined a long line of speakers who called on CPS to halt its plans to close, phase out or hand over schools to outside managers. Fioretti said incoming-freshmen in Crane’s attendance area would be absorbed by four “marginal,” low-scoring schools that also are on academic probation. Mixing different populations could trigger the kind of spike in violence that haunted previous similar closings, he said.

The alderman urged CPS to back a Crane-written plan for the school’s own “turnaround” and said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), Ald. Walter Burnett (27), State Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) and State Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) also opposed the Crane phase-out.

A group of people fighting the phase out of Dyett High charged CPS had “destabilized” the Bronzeville area with its policies and shakeups. Over the years, King was converted from a neighborhood to a selective enrollment high school; Dyett was changed from a functioning middle school to a high school with only seven books in the library and no honors classes; and Price was changed from an elementary to a middle school, they said.

“How long are you going to disregard us?” an angry Bobbie Townsend asked board members. “Please help us.”

Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization also warned of spikes in violence if Dyett attendance-area students are routed elsewhere. He urged the board to approve a community-written plan for the area.

“We are looking at your plan and it’s not a done deal,” Board member Mahalia Hines told Brown. “This is not a cookie-cutter board. We do investigate and then make decisions.”

Jackson Potter, chief of staff to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, questioned why the board was scheduled Wednesday to approve millions in renovation funds promised as part of the fresh start of targeted schools, even though those schools’ shakeups aren’t up for a vote for a month. “It gives the appearance they already made up their minds’’ about school shakeups, Potter said.

However, School Board President David Vitale said the renovation budget was “adjustable” and could be changed later.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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