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Hard Lessons

Disney's incumbent local school council gets spanked in a spirited election fight.

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By Ben Joravsky

The bitter three-year fight for control of the Walt Disney grade school has ended with the outsiders in and the insiders out.

A slate of parental activists used old-fashioned political street smarts to sweep the old council out of office in last week's local school council elections. "You could say we learned from our past losses," says John Aguina, a leader of the victorious slate. "All the education smarts in the world won't do you any good if you can't get out the vote."

On the surface it's surprising that discontent flourished at Disney, one of the city's most highly regarded grade schools. Located in Uptown near the lake, the school selects students by a lottery designed to guarantee a healthy mix of races and ethnicities, and until recently its television, radio, and performance art studios-- located in an enormous first-floor facility known as the Communications Arts Center--were among the best in the metropolitan area. "I sent my kid to Disney because it has a great reputation as one of the fine schools," says Katie Simmons, a newly elected LSC member. "I quickly found out that I was misinformed."

For the last few years staff and parents have been divided over principal Raphael Guajardo, who's been accused of insulting teachers and unfairly reassigning them. In June of 1993 the LSC voted to remove Guajardo from office. But a few months later the decision was reversed when some LSC members were swept from office as the result of an ingenious campaign devised by Stan Hollenbeck, a local political operative and publicist. Hollenbeck took advantage of changes in LSC election procedures that allowed residents to vote for parental candidates. He got high-rise dwellers to vote for his slate by distributing flyers warning that the board planned to sell Disney and replace it with some sort of development that would "create congestion and tax an already overburdened parking situation." Hollenbeck brought in a van to drive senior citizens to the school to vote, and he and two other members of his slate were elected. They then joined forces with other LSC members to oust Aguina as chairman and retain Guajardo as principal.

"It was old-fashioned politics," Hollenbeck told reporters at the time. "We brought out the vote."

The result was civil war, with council meetings disrupted by angry exchanges among parents and council members accusing one another of everything from racism to corruption to betrayal.

In time attendance at LSC meetings dwindled and many activists sent their children to different schools. Roughly a year ago the council and Guajardo voted to close the Communications Arts Center, arguing that the budget cutbacks by the Board of Education left them with no choice.

"As the board cuts back on the money it sends to us, we have to make tough choices on how to spend it," Hollenbeck explains. "We had to use the money for clerks, assistant principals, and a transportation director. You might ask what does that have to do with education? Nothing. But we need them to run the school. The board put us in an awful position."

The decision to close the Communications Arts Center infuriated many parents. "We had thousands of dollars' worth of valuable TV and radio equipment locked in storage. We had modern TV studios going unused--it was a major waste of taxpayers' money," says Lori Darugar, a parent at the school. "But when I went to an LSC meeting to ask about it, the council members were rude to me. They said, 'Where were you before? What are your ideas? Tell us where you would find the money to open it.' I'm thinking, 'This is how they treat concerned parents who want to get involved?'"

Aguina says council leaders insulted any parent who questioned their authority. But Hollenbeck says tempers were short because many critics were unfairly accusatory. "We didn't want to shut down the center, we had to do it for budget reasons," he says. "It kills me that it's closed. I agree it is a major waste. But what else could we do? We agreed to open it again as soon as the money was available."

By 1995 many parents were meeting to devise an election strategy to unseat the ruling LSC. From the outset one of their leaders was Aguina, a council member since 1989 who managed to survive the Hollenbeck coup. "We realized that this time we couldn't afford to be outorganized," says Aguina. "We had to get our message out."

In April 1995 Aguina and his allies stood outside the school, getting parents to sign petitions calling on Guajardo and the LSC to reopen the Communications Arts Center. "It was freezing cold but we got over 400 signatures," says Katie Simmons. "Guajardo called the police, and they had us move off the sidewalk. They said we were on board property. As soon as the police left we moved back."

Most important, they collected phone numbers and addresses. They sent flyers to parents who'd signed the petition and then called them on election day. Over the months they gave themselves a name, Parents for a Better Disney, and put together an integrated slate of candidates for the elections.

Last March, after the group had pleaded with the Board of Education to investigate accusations of bad management, a board investigator issued a report noting that while test scores remain stable, "the quality that made Disney a special place does not now exist. If this confusion and this lack of direction continue, the future of the school [and]...the question as to whether it should remain a magnet school is in doubt."

The Aguina slate pounced on this report, quoting from it in the flyers they distributed to residents and parents. "The time has come for change," the flyer read. "We have been told that unless circumstances change, Disney may lose its magnet school status and become a local public school."

The incumbent council might have been better positioned to defend itself but it was divided into rival slates--one of which issued an inflammatory flyer warning parents that their children would be consigned to a future of "flipping burgers at McDonald's" if Aguina were reelected.

"It was a really nasty flyer, and it made me upset, but it backfired on them," says Darugar. "We showed it to the manager at the local McDonald's and she was incensed. She said, 'I put my children through college on this salary, and there's nothing wrong with working here.' She supplied coffee for us on election day and a big sign that said McDonald's supported our slate."

On election day members from all factions were at the school long before the polls opened at 6 AM. "I was there handing out my literature from four in the morning until the bitter end," says Hollenbeck. "I'm an old precinct captain."

Simmons was not to be outdone. "I was shaking hands long before the sun came up," she says. "I worked the women hard. I'd say, 'Let's make our stand. We carry the babies. We can't let this happen to our children.' This was my first campaign; my husband said I was in all my glory."

In the end the Aguina slate won seven out of eight seats (Simmons won more votes than any other candidate). Supported by the council's two teacher representatives, they now control the LSC. "When the results came in, we were jumping up and down and hugging and crying and screaming," says Aguina. "It was such a vindication. The other side said horrible things about us. They said we didn't care about the school. They said we didn't have ties to the parents. It was so sweet."

In the aftermath Aguina and his allies are straining to be conciliatory. "We don't take office until July 1, so we want to work with the current council and Mr. Guajardo to have a smooth transition," says Aguina. "Mr. Guajardo has two years left on his contract and we want to work with him not against him if possible."

He's even conciliatory to Hollenbeck. "On election night Stan congratulated me," says Aguina. "You know Stan's no dope. He's the reason most of those incumbents were elected. I like to think we learned something from the master."

That's one point on which Hollenbeck agrees. "They say plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery--well, I was flattered to death on election day," Hollenbeck says. "They used all of my tactics, and the Board of Education tied it all up in a big red ribbon for them with that report."

For the moment all sides agree that they would like more money from the board to help reopen the Communications Arts Center. Indeed, the renewed attention may force the board to explain how it has allowed one of the most impressive art facilities in Chicago to grow dusty with disuse. "The time for elections is over," says Aguina. "We have to rebuild our school."

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

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