Reduction of cultural program draws protest

Nomaan Merchant

The appointment of three new school principals in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 was overshadowed Tuesday by tensions between school board members and administrators.

A coalition of local black churches and organizations attended a special school board meeting to protest the board’s decision to adopt a reduced version of an African-centered curriculum pilot program.

The board approved a 60-student program at Oakton Elementary School, 436 Ridge Ave. in a March 20 meeting. Students in the program will take classes with content geared directly towards black and African culture. Black community leaders supported a program twice as big.

Many of the more than 50 black community members present at the meeting were vocal in their support for a larger pilot and booed board president Mary Rita Luecke as she entered the meeting. Luecke opposed the first model discussed and sponsored the third, and smallest, model.

The audience remained forceful throughout the meeting, shouting praise for the larger pilot’s supporters and loudly criticizing detractors.

Emotions flared between board members and administrators as well.

Board member Marianne Kountoures revealed that Luecke had proposed a board retreat, partly to evaluate Superintendent Hardy Murphy’s performance. Some board members have questioned the ability of Luecke and Murphy to work together.

Murphy spoke out against board members critical of how he handled the development of the pilot, saying he could not be held responsible for the anger of the black community.

“How dare you?” shouted board member Jonathan Baum, who opposed any form of the pilot.

The audience, who had mostly remained calm, started yelling loudly at Baum. Several board members reprimanded Baum for disrespecting the superintendent.

“I could see us all cringing at the tone of voice used by a board member towards our superintendent,” board member Mary Erickson said.

Baum later apologized for losing his temper.

Many black leaders have accused the board of unfairly blaming Murphy for the district’s woes.

Originally, discussion of the pilot was not on the meeting agenda. But Kountoures made a motion to discuss what she called the “failure” of the process to develop the pilot.

But Luecke said the board should consult its lawyer first. The board faces possible legal action based on accusations members improperly circulated e-mails about the pilot.

Members eventually decided to have the discussion in the board’s April 24 meeting.

Several black speakers accused the board of disregarding the needs of black students by voting down the larger pilot.

Tracey Wallace, a leader of the coalition, said the black community will not back down until the situation is resolved.

“This board room will become the new arena for battle,” Wallace told the board. “Forget Monday Night Football. We’re coming here Monday night until we get what we want.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]