News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Annals of school reform: power politics at Disney School



It was supposed to be a relatively routine gathering of the local school council, an eye-glazing recitation of the year's budget. But more than 100 area residents, parents, and students--a much larger group than usual--had come, and within a few minutes many of them were on their feet, voices filled with venom, hurling accusations at one another.

"Racist," one woman yelled.

"Traitors," someone else bellowed.

"I'm gonna call the police," a third person yelled.

Welcome to the world of participatory democracy as it's being practiced at the Walt Disney magnet school, 4140 N. Marine Drive. The central player in this nasty feud is Raphael Guajardo, the school's principal, who's either a derisive tyrant or a much misunderstood educator, depending on who's telling the story. In June the council voted to remove Guajardo from office, but in the October 21 LSC election most of that council's members were swept from office, primarily because of the votes of area residents who don't have children in the school. One of the new council's first acts was to vote to retain Guajardo.

"We have a situation where residents can dictate how a school is run," says John Aguina, a parent member of the council. "If parents don't like it--tough."

Such sentiments, Guajardo's supporters counter, are simply sour grapes. "The guy with the most votes wins," says Stan Hollenbeck, the north-side political operative who engineered the election-day reversal. "That's democracy."

For years Disney was one of the system's best-known and most highly regarded elementary schools, its students selected by a lottery designed to guarantee a healthy mix of blacks, Hispanics, whites, and Asians drawn from all over the north side. The school is located across Lake Shore Drive from Lincoln Park, and it features a lineup of diverse courses in music, dance, and television and radio production. "It's not easy to get into Disney because, despite all the turmoil, the school does a good job," says Aguina. "Most kids who start here stay here."

Guajardo was chosen principal in the summer of 1990 from a list of more than 100 candidates. Members of the LSC cited his knowledge of computers and his experience as principal of another school.

But within a few months Guajardo was at odds with several veteran teachers, who say he's crude and intolerant and has a propensity for making insulting and bigoted remarks. "He can be so insensitive, particularly in regard to race," says Gail Kay, a teacher who's a member of the LSC. Her comments were seconded by several other teachers who asked not to be identified. "Once he was passing around candy, and he said to one black teacher something like 'a chocolate blob for another chocolate blob.'"

Kay also accuses Guajardo of being petty in his treatment of teachers he doesn't like. "A couple of teachers organized the First National Bank of Disney. The kids made deposits, and used the money to buy their mothers presents on Mother's Day. It was a great success, but because he didn't like the teachers he didn't put that in the newsletter. We don't need pats on the back, but at least he should be supportive."

Many teachers objected to personnel changes Guajardo has made, moving teachers from one class to another and sending assistant principals back to the classroom. "I feel some of these moves were punishment for teachers who didn't suck up," says Kay, who was moved by Guajardo from a fourth-grade to a kindergarten class. "When we questioned his decisions, he'd get abusive. Once he leaned forward, waved his finger in my face, and said, 'You don't ever question my judgment.'"

Guajardo defends the personnel changes as necessary to improve the school. "Under school reform I'm responsible for improving the performance of students," he says. "I felt these moves were necessary to fulfill my responsibilities." He also says the chocolate-blob remark, like other jokes he's made, has been blown out of proportion. "It was my attempt at humor. I meant no offense, and I apologized when offense was taken."

Test scores, he points out, have increased during his tenure, and the faculty's racial composition has remained roughly the same. "I've made some changes to service the kids better, and I suppose that change is difficult for all of us. But I haven't changed things that much. It's not as though I'm Joan of Arc."

Nonetheless, the council voted nine to zero (with one abstention) in June to ask the school board to remove Guajardo. "We felt we had to get him out of the building as soon as possible, because he was bad for morale," says Aguina, who at the time was the council's chairman. "We hoped to have him out by the new school year."

The council forwarded its request in a letter sent to the central office, where, predictably, it was lost. "The attorney who handles these things quit, or so we were told," says Aguina. "Things just kept dragging, and we never did get a hearing on the matter, even though the board is supposed to act on these things within 45 days."

In the meantime Hollenbeck, a self-employed publicist with close ties to what's left of the old Democratic organization, was running to win back his seat as a community rep on the Disney council. He'd been elected in 1989, then defeated two years later by two votes. "I don't have kids at Disney," he says. "But my wife teaches there, and I used to teach there, and I still have strong feelings for the school. The Disney concept was to be experimental, but over the years it's become more of a remedial school with an emphasis on back to basics. . . . I was also upset at Aguina and some of the other council members for not appointing me to fill a vacancy."

Hollenbeck devised a plan to take advantage of a change in the election procedure ordered by the state supreme court. Under the old procedure parents voted for six parent council members, and area residents voted for two community representatives. In 1991 the court ruled that violated the principle of "one man, one vote," and under the new system residents and parents both get five votes.

"The council still consists of six parents, two community reps, two teachers, and the principal," says Aguina. "But now parents can vote for community reps, and community reps can vote for parents. It's a case where they fixed one problem by creating another. Residents shouldn't get as much of a say in running a school as the people who send their kids there."

One of Hollenbeck's campaign assertions--for which he has no proof--was that the board will sell the Disney property within five years. "This is valuable property, and the board's desperate for the cash," he says. "Unless we can make Disney better, I'm sure they'll sell it."

A few days before the election he circulated a flier in the high rises next to the school, predicting Disney would be sold, boarded up, torn down, and replaced by some sort of development, which would "create congestion and tax an already overburdened parking situation."

The flier concluded, "Help us save [Disney] from the real estate auction block," and called on people to vote for Phillip Peters, Alan Whitmore, Jeffrey Manuel, Tariq Hafeez, and John Matthews. "I'm proud of that slate--it's a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities," says Hollenbeck. "I didn't recommend a vote for myself because there were only two people running for community rep, which meant we were both guaranteed victory."

On election day Hollenbeck dispatched a van to drive senior citizens from several lakefront high rises to the school to vote. "It was old-fashioned Chicago politics," he says. "We brought out the vote."

Three members of Hollenbeck's slate were elected: Manuel and Matthews were not. Aguina was reelected, but was ousted as chairman at the council's first meeting. Then the council voted seven to three to rescind the old council's request to dismiss Guajardo.

"I have some problems with Guajardo, but most of the criticism against him is unjustified," says Hollenbeck. "He did move some assistant principals back to the classroom. But I believe that if teachers don't want to teach they should get out of the system. The old council denied Guajardo due process. He should be allowed to finish his term, which expires next spring."

Aguina and other parents feel betrayed. "You can't have one council ask the board to disregard the actions of the last council, like we never even lived," says Aguina. "Most people from the high rises who voted don't know about Disney. You should have seen them on election day, reading [Hollenbeck's flier] and saying, "Now, who am I supposed to vote for?' It was a slap in the face to us who have worked here for so long."

It isn't clear whether one council can rescind a previous council's request, but when the board will decide is anybody's guess. Meanwhile, as is often the case in these sorts of LSC affairs, council meetings have become forums for both sides to vent their contempt for each other.

Guajardo, echoing comments made, ironically, by some of his opponents, says, "The real issue is whether we're going to get beyond this squabble, and whether school reform will be about new educational programs or just a never-ending series of contests."

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

Add a comment