WEST LOOP — A long-simmering battle between groups of parents at top-ranked Skinner West Elementary School came to a head during a Local School Council meeting last week in the West Loop.
Captured on video, the heated exchange between then-Skinner West LSC chairman Michael McMurray and another parent at the meeting June 26 was reportedly sparked by a rumored expansion of the school’s classical program. Two school council members are also caught on video telling a resident to stop recording the meeting, a move that violated Illinois’ Opens Meeting Act rules, experts say.
In the 1-minute video, McMurray, a parent representative on the board, and an unidentified parent in the audience are seen yelling at one another in the heated exchange. McMurray is no longer on the LSC, according to CPS officials, and new LSC members were instated on July 1st.
“Who are you yelling at?… Who do you think you are yelling at… I’m yelling at you,” McMurray says, pointing to the parent in the audience.
The parent in the audience appears to respond that he is tired of people like McMurray. Block Club Chicago was not able to confirm the parent’s identity.
“I’m tired of people like you,” then-chairman McMurray says back. “Who do you think you are?”
The parent in the audience responds: “I’m a parent here!”
“I’m a parent, too,” McMurray says back. “Who do you think are?”
Towards the end of the argument, McMurray says: “Do you want to go out? Is that what you’re saying?” before other LSC members called for a break.
Armando Chacon, who was serving as a Skinner West LSC member until a new board was instated July 1, said the meeting took a turn when the LSC opened the meeting up for public comment. Chacon is no longer serving on the board, he confirmed.
“Prior to the whole fireworks, everything was going well,” said Chacon, who also serves as president of the West Central Association, the West Loop’s chamber of commerce.
But then a man, who identified himself as a Skinner West parent, asked why the school planned to add to the classical program, instead of the school’s neighborhood program that serves families in the West Loop. He noted that even with the school’s $20 million expansion, the school will be tight on space with so many new families moving into the neighborhood, Chacon said.
A Level 1+ CPS grade school, there are three ways CPS students can enroll in Skinner West — through the selective enrollment testing process that serves the classical school, by living in the attendance boundaries or through the CPS lottery.
Following the question, the then-LSC chairman, McMurray, “went off,” Chacon said.
“I was shocked,” Chacon said, who was also sitting at the council table with other LSC members. McMurray’s child attended the classical program, Chacon said.
“I think he took offense that one of the neighborhood parents would question why we would add a classical class,” Chacon said.
Skinner West is adding one classical homeroom for each grade, according to Chacon, resulting in a total of two classical homerooms in each grade level.
The school previously had two classical homerooms for each grade level, but one was eliminated to address overcrowding at the school. Now with the expansion, the school is looking to restore the program to two homerooms per grade level, he said.
Despite what Chacon said after the meeting, CPS is denying that the school is expanding its classical program. CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said there are no plans to add additional classical seats at this time, and the school will continue to have only one classical homeroom per grade level.
Part selective-enrollment classical school, part neighborhood school and part magnet school, Skinner West was bursting at the seams two years ago. At the time, Skinner’s LSC made a number of cuts in an effort to address overcrowding, including cutting classical classes and preschool programs.
Then, in 2016, CPS announced a $20 million dollar expansion at Skinner West to address overcrowding.
The move to expand Skinner was announced seven years after the school was rebuilt with the help of TIF funding to add a neighborhood component and three years after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 Chicago schools, including many on the West Side.
Clark, the school’s principal, did not respond to a request for comment. McMurray, the LSC’s then-chairman, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Two other LSC members, Matt Letourneau, who also serves as president of Neighbors of West Loop, and Fadi Matalka, declined to comment on the meeting.
McMurray apologized later in the meeting, according to Chacon.
“In the end, cooler heads prevailed and we were able to answer questions and address community members’ concerns,” Chacon said.
During his tenure on the board, Chacon said LSC meetings have been heated in the past, specifically between parents whose children are in the neighborhood and classical programs. When the neighborhood program was installed at Skinner, which was exclusively classical at the time, Chacon recalls that classical parents vehemently opposed it.
“It was very, very contentious,” he said. “But I do not remember seeing this level of contentiousness and us arguing since then.”
Chacon said parents have a right to ask questions of the LSC regarding decisions that are being made at the school, and “we have an obligation to respond factually.”