School officials rally to discourage boycott

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • August 14, 2008 @ 7:30 AM

Parents, principals, students and school administrators packed an elementary school gymnasium in Austin yesterday, hoping to head off a proposed first week of school boycott.

The rally, at DePriest Elementary School in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, was organized to counteract calls by State Sen. James Meeks (D-15), and a group of 50 pastors for an opening week boycott to protest inequities in state funding for city and suburban school districts.

Meeks' proposed boycott began as a one-day walkout Sept. 2, but has since grown to a full week with planned protests at government buildings and schools. A group of pastors began a door-to-door campaign this week through the West Side. The Rev. Ira Acree, of Greater St. John Church, says the campaign will move to the South Side next week.

Both groups agree on the need for more state funding, but have different ideas about how to drive the point home to state legislators.

Chicago schools Chief Arne Duncan said there have been conversations among various school superintendents about the possibility of a class action lawsuit to try to force the state to act.

Legislators were called back to Springfield this week by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to consider several financial issues, including education.

"I remain hopeful that (funding increases) will happen," Duncan said Wednesday. "If that doesn't happen, we have to take it to another level."

Duncan, who said the state ranks 47th in the nation for education funding, said legal action would be a last resort.

City schools resume Sept. 2, and CPS has yet to adopt a budget for the new school year. Under the school code, it must do so by the end of August. It is expected to be $1.9 billion. CPS has already decided to use $100 million in reserves to help close the budget gap, mostly for teacher salary increases, pensions and health-care cost increases.

The district had sought additional money from the state for capital expenditures, including new construction. Instead, that money is coming from the city, property taxes and bonds.

"We're desperate tired," Duncan said. "We're tired of being tired."

But Duncan and other officials urged parents to ignore calls for a school boycott.

"Something has to change, something has to be different, we could not agree more," said Rufus Williams, president of the Chicago Board of Education. "That being said, our children need to be in school on September 2nd. "

"We want to have equal funding all across the state," said Alderman Ed Smith (28th Ward). "In the final analysis, we have to have our children in our schools. Not only on the first day, we have to have our children in school every day."

Williams said any boycott absences will be unexcused and reminded parents that students with more than nine absences during the school year must attend summer school to get promoted to the next grade.

CPS also has a financial incentive for discouraging the boycott. The highest attendance within a three-month period figures into the state-budgeting formula, and the district has used opening-day attendance figures as a part of that. Last year, Duncan said, the city's attendance rate on opening day was 93 percent.

Following an hour-long rally at the school, which also featured Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah, groups of parents and administrators went through the Austin neighborhood door-to-door. At one point, Noah was standing on the corner of West Adams and Menard streets, signing autographs and posing for photos with residents of the neighborhood.

"I know this is worth fighting for," says Noah, who won a national championship at the University of Florida. "I know education is very important."

Three blocks from DePriest Elementary, Leticia Walker, who has one daughter entering fourth grade at DePriest, watched as Williams, Duncan and a small army of TV cameramen tried to squeeze through a stairway and into her second-floor apartment. After a five-minute conversation and the presentation of a t-shirt,  they were on to the next apartment.

Walker, who attended DePriest at a time when there were few books for the students, says she is impressed with the improvement in the school now and with principal Minnie Watson.

"It's exciting to me," Walker says. "It's like a new environment. When I went to the school, I didn't have the gym facility we have now."

Walker says she will not join the boycott, but said she might  have considered it if she believed it would affect the state budgeting process. Besides, she said, many parents would not be able to stay home with their children.

"Where are they (the children) going to be that day?" she asks. "I'm saying, it's the wrong time."

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.