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Coming soon to a community near you: A right-wing local government conspiracy

Director Paul Traynor’s New Trier: Tip of the Spear is about more than a suburban high school.

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New Trier High School is the focus of Paul Traynor's new documentary. - SUN-TIMES MEDIA/TOM CRUZE
  • sun-times Media/Tom Cruze
  • New Trier High School is the focus of Paul Traynor's new documentary.

Thanks to the subversive power of YouTube, you can now watch New Trier: Tip of the Spear—the documentary the North Shore radical right tried to shut down—on your computer. Director and narrator Paul Traynor gallops deep into the weeds in his hurriedly produced, rapid-fire account of how a battle over Seminar Day, a one-day program on racial civil rights at elite New Trier High School, opened a window on what he sees as a national conspiracy to destroy public schools and take control of local government.

As it happens, Traynor has more than a passing interest in the subject. The parent of "one current and four future New Trier students," he's a professional writer, speaker, filmmaker, and, most recently, a host of Race Bait, a podcast he produces with cohost Tania Richard. The show's tagline is "She's black. He's white. They talk about racism so you don't have to."

Traynor says that as he watched Seminar Day opposition unfold online, drawing "bash New Trier" comments from political activists outside the district, and then blowing up and surfacing everywhere from Dan Proft's conservative radio talk show to the Wall Street Journal, it occurred to him that he should document the brouhaha in a short-form video.

"It quickly became clear that it was a very small group stirring up all this controversy," Traynor says. "But they managed to sell it nationally. Depending on your point of view, it either painted New Trier folks as leftist indoctrinators who are out of touch and pushing white guilt, or insensitive rich white people."

Seminar Day went off as planned on February 28, with two National Book Award winners as keynote speakers and sessions on topics like "Disney and Racial Stereotypes" and "21st Century Voter Suppression." The controversy raged on, however, its focus shifting to previously routine local elections, where for the first time in a century an upstart slate of candidates—supported by some of the same people who'd opposed the seminar—had arisen to contest those endorsed by the nonpartisan New Trier Township caucus.

It was about this time, Traynor says, that he realized he had a "longer-form piece" on his hands. It wouldn't be his first feature-length project: a decade ago he wrote and directed Witches' Night, a boys-night-out-meets-coven thriller you can also access on your computer (through Netflix). But that was fiction; this was shaping up as a real-life horror story.

Traynor launched a Kickstarter campaign in early March, raising his goal of $15,000 in two weeks, and intended to open his film before the April 4 election. His premiere, scheduled for March 22 at the Wilmette Theatre, drew a crowd, but was scuttled at the last minute by a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of some members of the Seminar Day opposition. After getting his own legal advice, Traynor rented the theater again and went ahead with two screenings on April 2.

Tip of the Spear opens with Traynor talking to the camera. He's wearing glasses and a Hamilton Chicago T-shirt and looks like the kind of unassuming person you wouldn't hesitate to chat with in a Wilmette coffee shop. The story he tells is fleshed out with video clips, including moments from a wild appearance he and conservative writer (and New Trier parent) Betsy Hart made on Channel 11's Chicago Tonight, and local right-wing media mogul Dan Proft referring to Traynor as "a typical left-wing bed wetter" on his radio talk show.

By February 19, the film explains, warring petitions had gathered more than 5,000 signatures supporting Seminar Day and only 353 opposed. Traynor theorizes that this attack on "one of the crown jewels of public education" was a strategic ploy by forces in favor of so-called school choice. Those forces include Proft and his colleagues at the conservative think tank Illinois Policy Institute (who attempted to bring virtual charter schools to Illinois), and a group called the Policy Circle, an organization for women cofounded in 2013 by Sylvie Légère Ricketts, wife of Cubs owner and Trump-nominated deputy secretary of commerce, Todd Ricketts, in her Wilmette living room.

The Policy Circle is "like a book club," but one that only discusses economic policy, adheres to the principle that "the free-enterprise system works," and bases its discussions on briefing papers from conservative think tanks, like the Illinois Policy Institute. According to its website, the Policy Circle now consists of 47 groups in 19 states and is growing rapidly.

The film finds overlap between the Policy Circle, Seminar Day opponents, upstart candidates, the Illinois Policy Institute, and national organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Traynor sees in this a new, education-based version of the military-industrial complex, intent on turning taxpayer dollars into corporate profits.

"I no longer think it's crazy to think a national conspiracy is under way with an agenda to dictate our local politics," he says at the film's conclusion. "I believe it's happening, and I believe New Trier is just the tip of the spear."

But they're not winning yet in New Trier Township: in last week's election, the unslated candidates were trounced by margins of three to one.  v

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