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Annals of school reform: democracy gets messy in Rogers Park

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By most accounts, peace ended and the sniping began at the Joyce Kilmer elementary school sometime late in 1990.

Before that, members of the local school council at Kilmer (in Rogers Park, at 6700 N. Greenview) had peacefully gone about their business--allocating state antipoverty funds, hiring new teachers, enacting a school-improvement plan.

Then they got around to the tricky question of whether to retain Albert Orenstein, the school's 64-year-old principal. Now, in an odd display of school-reform politics, six of Kilmer's ten LSC members, led by community representative Carlos Malave, have initiated a process that may unseat Orenstein, even though the vast majority of students, teachers, and parents want him to stay. In the last few months, two local residents have challenged Malave's right to sit on the council (they say he doesn't live within the school's attendance area); Malave has hired a lawyer to fight the challenge; some council members won't speak to one another; each side accuses the other of lying; and no one can predict when or if peace will return.

"I still can't believe they turned on Mr. Orenstein," says council chair Dominick Galvan Jr. "He has given 20 years of his life to Kilmer. He deserves much better than this. It's an ego thing. They're getting away with the power of sitting on the LSC."

"They are trying to bully me because I'm standing up for what I think is right," Malave counters. "I will not be intimidated."

The irony is that such feuding should erupt over Orenstein, a soft-spoken former high school history teacher who has a reputation as a conciliator, able to get along with a diverse group of faculty, parents, and students: the school's population is roughly 36 percent black, 34 percent Hispanic, 16 percent white, and 12 percent Asian.

"I don't like fights; I believe there are other ways to handle our disagreements," says Orenstein. "Even now, I won't say anything bad about the council members who are against me. I like to think that I run a loving and warm school."

Kilmer's biggest problem is overcrowding. The school was built to house about 900 students, but enrollment may top 1,200 by next year. Classes are held on the auditorium stage and in the third-floor hallway. "Mr. Orenstein got us some extra room for classrooms by getting the board to rent space from a synagogue across the street," says Galvan. "It just shows you what we can do when we work together."

Yet beneath a surface that seemed to work, dissatisfaction was brewing, particularly in Malave. In many ways Malave, a gas-station owner and operator, symbolizes the "ordinary" citizen who has been "empowered," as school activists like to say, by reform. His only child graduated from Kilmer in 1985, but until the LSC elections of October 1989, Malave had not been active in the schools. By almost all accounts, he has emerged as a dedicated and hardworking council member, keenly involved in the fight to ease overcrowding in north-side schools. Critics contend that Malave's newfound prominence and authority (however small in the total scheme of things) have turned his head. Malave counters that he's only trying to do what's best for the schools.

"I never really planned to run for the LSC," says Malave. "But I attended some meetings right before the council election, and after I spoke a few people said, 'You were really good, you should run.'" Malave finished second in a five-candidate race, just ahead of longtime Rogers Park resident Sheila Tobin.

Once he was on the council, Malave says, he quickly discovered that the school had gone downhill since his son's graduation. In the 50s and 60s it was one of the highest-scoring schools in the city. Now Kilmer's eighth-graders rarely score in the top quarter of national achievement tests: 17 percent for reading and only 6.4 percent for math. Kilmer's scores in both math and reading are well below the state average for all grades.

"It's not an awful school," says Malave. "It's a mediocre school in one of the state's worst school systems. I have to admit: if my son were of school age, I wouldn't send him there."

Malave says he was most distressed by the inadequacy of Kilmer's bilingual program; at one point last year, 48 Spanish-speaking students were crowded into one classroom.

"I raised the issue with Orenstein, and he did have the class divided and we spent more money to hire bilingual teachers; but I wasn't completely satisfied," says Malave, who still believes the program is too crowded. "I'm Hispanic, but I never thought of myself as anything but American. I was always against bilingual education. I always said, 'You should learn English because it's the language of business.' But when I saw those 48 kids in the classroom, I felt bad for the Hispanic parents. If that's good education, I don't want any part of it."

According to the school-reform law, the council had until February to decide whether to retain Orenstein (Orenstein is a member ex officio, though he does not get to vote on his own contract). If they chose not to retain Orenstein, they would then create a search committee of parents, teachers, and residents to look for a new principal. By December, Malave says, he had decided he would vote against retaining Orenstein.

"My decision was not anti-Orenstein," says Malave. "All in all, I think he's been doing a pretty good job. But I felt that I have a commitment to try and hire the best principal we can find. We can't know who that person is if we don't open up the process. Orenstein can apply for the job if he wants to. And if he's the best candidate, I'd vote for him. I've said many times: 'The other guys would really have to outshine Orenstein before they'd get my vote.'"

During the early days of last December, Malave's residency became an issue.

"Someone passed on to me an anonymous letter he had received, which said that Carlos was ineligible to sit on the council because he did not live in the school attendance district," says Galvan. "I asked him about it, and he said, 'I'll check it out with [District Two superintendent] Jim Maloney.' A couple days later, Carlos told me at a public meeting, 'Don't worry, I talked to Maloney and he told me that I live in the district.'"

Galvan's report of that exchange is verified by two other people who say they heard Malave tell Galvan that he had talked to Maloney. Malave, however, says the story is not true.

"I never talked to Maloney, and I never told Dominick [Galvan] that I talked to Maloney, and I don't know why he or anyone else would say I did," says Malave. "When Dominick told me about the anonymous letter, I said, 'Have they filed an official challenge?' He said no. I said, 'OK, until they file an official challenge, don't tell me about an anonymous letter.' I don't like anonymous letters. People should have the guts to tell you something to your face."

By then sides had been taken: Malave, Sherry Bailey, Sonia Cornier, Richard Cozza, Jose Kattan, and Louella Williams had made it clear they would vote to start the search process; Galvan, Wendy Carson, Alice Dunlap-Kraft, and Nasim Kaba were going to vote to retain Orenstein.

But few observers believed that the anti-Orenstein faction would hold together in the face of massive support for the principal. Roughly 60 residents, teachers, and parents attended an LSC meeting in January on the matter; all but two pleaded that Orenstein be retained. A few days later, the school's staff--teachers, janitors, and office clerks--voted 59 to 3 in a closed-ballot decision to retain Orenstein.

Meanwhile Sheila Tobin, the resident who had finished just behind Malave in the 1989 council election, was conducting her own investigation into whether or not Malave lived in the district. On February 11--three days before the council was supposed to vote on retaining Orenstein--Tobin and another resident challenged Malave's eligibility to sit on the council.

"I didn't do this to protect Orenstein, and I didn't do it because I wanted to get on the council," says Tobin. "If you know my history you will know that I have never been afraid to be a gadfly, and that in the past I have been a gadfly against Orenstein. It's just that I know that what Carlos did was wrong. When we were running for the council Carlos told me that he wasn't sure if he lived in the district. I believe you should abide by the rules. If the rules say he should get off the council, he should get off. Anything else is not right or ethical. If you don't like the process, change the process. But as long as you're participating, you ought to play by the rules."

Malave denies that he ever told Tobin that he had doubts about his eligibility. "I have lived at 6829 N. Wayne for years," says Malave. "I lived there when my son went to Kilmer. Now it turns out that, yes, the Kilmer boundary ends at 6820 N. Wayne, so technically I'm in a different district. But come on, why would I send my son to Kilmer if I knew we didn't live in the district? My lawyer and I researched this; since 1956 everyone who has lived in the four houses closest to me sent their children to Kilmer. None of us knew we were out of the district. No one told us. We were all acting in good faith."

Malave says Tobin is being used by the pro-Orenstein forces (an accusation Tobin denies). "When I ran for the council," says Malave, "I listed my address, and no one challenged me. But when I take a stand on retention they challenge me. That anonymous letter was their way of delivering a message that I'd better vote for Orenstein and be quiet. When I wasn't quiet, they said, 'OK, sic Tobin on him.'"

At a meeting on Valentine's Day--attended by dozens of Orenstein supporters, some of whom cried--Malave and his five council cohorts (none of whom would respond for comment) voted against retaining Orenstein. Angered by the vote, Galvan scheduled three more hearings to review the decision, hoping that public outcry might convince Malave and the others to reconsider.

"Carlos says I held those meetings to stack things for Orenstein," says Galvan. "I said, 'OK, Carlos, if you know of any parents or residents who support your position, bring them in. I'd love to hear from them.' But he never brought in anyone, and you want to know why? Because everyone at Kilmer, except those six council members, loves Orenstein."

In the last few weeks, the battlefront has moved to school-board headquarters; Malave suffered a setback when general superintendent of schools Ted Kimbrough ruled against him on Tobin's challenge. "Since you no longer reside in the area, you are ineligible for membership on the council," Kimbrough wrote Malave on March 26. "Therefore, I hereby declare your position on the LSC vacant."

If the board removes Malave from the LSC, Galvan thinks that some of Malave's allies will turn around and support Orenstein--an assertion Malave disputes. Malave has appealed Kimbrough's ruling to a subcommittee of the full board, and a hearing on that matter has been scheduled for May. In the meantime, the school has organized a search committee to find a new principal.

"If they think I'm just gonna walk away, they don't know me," says Malave. "I'm tougher than that. I plan to fight this as far as I can go, and I plan to win!"

In his own quiet way, Orenstein is equally defiant. "In two years I may be ready to retire, but not now; I feel I have some work left to do here," he says. "I want to leave when I'm ready, not when someone else says it's time for me to go."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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