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Paid To Protest? Chicago Schools Watchdog Investigating After Needy Residents Paid To Support Closures

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Chicago has been closing struggling schools for years. During U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure as the city’s schools chief, he closed Chicago's Samuel Morse Elementary School (pictured in 2006) and reopened it as a charter school. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago has been closing struggling schools for years. During U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure as the city’s schools chief, he closed Chicago's Samuel Morse Elementary School (pictured in 2006) and reopened it as a charter school. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Perhaps the most hotly contested issue in Chicago recently has been the handling of Chicago's public schools. There was Mayor Rahm Emanuel's battle with the Chicago Teachers Union over implementing a longer school day, the controversial appointment of Jean-Claude Brizzard as schools chief and now, a plan to close or "turnaround" struggling Chicago schools.

Residents on both sides of the issue have attended protests and school board meetings, but a recent report in the Chicago Sun-Times has made the issue more contentious than ever before.

On Tuesday, the Sun-Times reported that two South Side residents looking for help paying their energy bills were offered cash to show up at a "rally" to support the school closures and turnarounds. Now, the Chicago Public Schools inspector general is investigating the incident.

Many of the paid protests were organized by Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, who runs the HOPE Organization in Englewood. Watkins was one of many Chicago pastors who vocally supported implementing a longer school day, and now is supporting the closings of poorly performing schools, including Guggenheim Elementary School in Englewood.

WBEZ spoke with a woman who lived in Englewood, who has reportedly made $50 for attending public hearings to support closing down failing schools. She joined other protesters, who were handed an envelope of cash after the hearings.

"They had a list of names for everybody that was on the buses," she told WBEZ. "She just called our names and gave us the $25."

Watkins and other pastors involved described the money as a "stipend" for training residents to become active in their communities.

Mayor Emanuel said ministers have a right to support the school closures, but would not directly address the paid protesters issue, according to the Sun-Times. An investigation has been launched by James Sullivan, the CPS inspector general, "to see if the allegations are true and, if true, if there’s anything wrong with that.”

One paid protester told the paper that when he realized he was being paid to support closing Guggenheim Elementary -- where he went to school -- he knew he was "on the wrong side."

The Teachers Union, along with some alderman and elected officials, are speaking out against the practice. State Senator Iris Martinez told WBEZ she plans on discussing the issue with Brizard.

"Why exactly are you paying folks to bring them in to protest? Some folks didn’t even know what they were protesting about. To me, the only people who should be protesting are the people from the neighborhood who will be really directly affected by this school closing."

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