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Opponents of school closing catch politicians' secret meet
A backroom deal in Chicago?

By Jesse Sharkey | March 10, 2006 | Page 2

CHICAGO ACTIVISTS opposed to a school-closing plan broke in on a backroom meeting that they believe was aimed at sealing the deal. Top school officials were found at a popular West Side restaurant Edna's--across the table from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and state Sen. Ricky Hendon, whose districts include Collins High School, one of the schools slated to close.

Last month, the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE) voted unanimously to close four Chicago schools as part of its citywide privatization plan, called Renaissance 2010. The closings, announced a month earlier, aroused an outpouring of anger at the four high schools--Frazier, Farren, Morse and Collins--and the surrounding communities, all poor Black neighborhoods.

Davis and Hendon were among the most militant-sounding critics of the closures plan. At a town-hall meeting against the Collins closing, Davis and Hendon both denounced the city's plan as racist, and emphasized their long connection to the North Lawndale neighborhood. "We're going to show them how we fight," Hendon told the cheering crowd.

Several days later, at the CBOE hearing, Hendon threatened to cut off funding if the Collins closure went through. "You're not going to see a penny," he told Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan.

But Hendon seems to have been sending a different message behind the scenes. Last month, neighborhood activists spotted Hendon, Davis, Duncan and CBOE President Michael Scott in a back room at Edna's. Scott is also a local real estate developer with substantial business interests in the gentrifying West Side neighborhood.

After being alerted about the gathering, reporters from a local public access show, Hood News, burst into the room, with video rolling. "Is this the sellout crew?" the reporter asked. "Is this a secret meeting about Collins High School?" Ricky Hendon told the reporters, "Kiss my ass!" while Davis went for his cell phone and called police.

None of the participants would tell reporters what was on the agenda for the secret meeting. It is illegal under the Illinois Open Meetings Act for multiple elected officials to meet about policy in secret.

But it soon became clear what deal had been made when the board announced that Collins High School would close as planned--but only for one year, according to the board.

Hendon and his supporters hailed this as a victory, but the board had only ever planned to leave Collins closed for a year. Under Renaissance 2010, the board's scheme is to reopen closed schools as new charter schools, with new students and nonunion teachers.

Far from a victory, Hendon's deal gave the board exactly what they wanted--while delivering nothing to the teachers, parents and students in the neighborhood he and Davis pledged to represent.

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