LINCOLN SQUARE — Two groups, students hoping to stop the sale of the Old Town School of Folk Music’s 909 W. Armitage Ave. building and teachers unionizing, met with the school’s board of directors Thursday night.
“We know you intend only the best for the school, and we truly appreciate the time and money you are contributing,” Rich Gordon, a student at the school, told the board.
He was one of the “delegation” from the Save the Old Town group invited to speak to the board at the meeting after members of the group met informally with two members of the school’s board of directors on Tuesday, according to a Save the Old Town Facebook post.
“We also, truly, want to understand all the factors that went into your decision to put 909 on the market. I think most of us would, even if reluctantly, support the sale of the building if we felt it was necessary to preserve the School,” he said. “But the way the 909 decision was made and communicated not only has failed to convince anyone — I think it’s made it harder for you to accomplish the fundraising goals you have in mind.”
Old Town’s board unanimously voted on Oct. 18 to sell its Armitage building to create an endowment fund to secure the school’s financial future. The schools’ community learned of the decision on Oct. 22 and were shocked and saddened by the news.
At the time Bau Graves, the school’s executive director told Block Club he understood the news “affects our community on a deeply emotional level” but that money from the sale would go towards an “endowment to help secure financial independence” for the school’s future.
Gordon launched the petition — which had over 8,000 signatures as of Friday — to stop the sale of the Armitage building on Oct. 23. Since then the Save the Old Town group has also organized a Nov. 10 rally and sent the board open letters asking them to reconsider the sale. During Thursday’s meeting the group also dropped off letters collected from fans of the school pleading for the sale to be stopped.
“In the course of seven days, we received the enclosed 136 letters, and we’ll provide you each with a copy after our group’s presentation,” said Michelle Stenzel, a member of the Save The Old Town group, at Thursday’s meeting. “You’ll see that the letters include expressions of sadness, dismay and anger, but also stories about the impact the school has had on people’s lives, and also many, many offers to help.”
The group also shared their three goals to the board:
- To put the sale of the Armitage building on hold until the school’s community has an opportunity to learn more about the factors underlying that decision.
- To ensure strategic decisions about the school are made in the interests of, and with meaningful input from, all of the school’s stakeholders.
- To establish an “ongoing collaboration” involving the school’s administration, faculty, students and other stakeholders — “so those of us who love and care about the School can contribute to solving its problems.”
Plans for the Save the Old Town group to meet with Graves on Nov. 6 to talk about alternatives were postponed due to his health. And on Sunday, Graves notified the school he was going to take a leave of absence for medical reasons for the rest of the year. Rashida Phillips, the school’s deputy director, is currently filling in for Graves as acting executive director.
During Thursday’s meeting teachers at the school gave a separate presentation to the board regarding their decision to unionize.
“This school was founded by teachers and students,” Gordon told Block Club. “And now somehow we have found ourselves in a situation where the teachers feel so unappreciated and not listened to that they are forming a union. And the school’s students are also so discontented we had a petition online and got organized.”
Aviva Bowen, a spokesperson with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, confirmed an organizing effort is underway with teachers at Old Town.
Two days after the board’s decision to sell the Armitage building becoming public 117 teachers, about half the teaching staff at the school, wrote a letter saying they saw “no wisdom” in the plan.
Old Town faculty Block Club reached out to were not immediately available to answer questions about their unionization.
Last week buyout letters were sent to non-teaching staff at the school. The letters told staff the buyouts were an attempt to “avoid or reduce involuntary reductions” and also said no raises were planned for 2019. Dave Zibell, spokesperson for the school, said the letters had nothing to do with the planned sale of the school’s building at 909 W. Armitage Ave. and were sent out to “address projected budget challenges in the coming year.”
In October, Zibell told Block Club the school’s enrollment was down about 4 percent from the previous year, with declines “more pronounced” at the Armitage location, but also that the school had zero debt. Regarding the enrollment decline, he said changes in audience interest and demographic shifts in the neighborhoods the school serves were likely the cause.
Zibell said the school expects to put the Armitage building on the market in early January 2019.
“Honestly, right now there is zero opportunity for the students to contribute to the governance and decision making at school,” Rich Gordon told Block Club. “What we’re saying to the board is, if you knew what we as students knew you would have done things differently. That’s why you should listen to us and why you should involve us and ask us for help with problems like diminishing enrollment.”
Representatives of the school were not immediately available to answer questions regarding their meeting with the Save the Old Town group or about the teacher’s unionization announcement.
“At a university, students are there for four years and then they’re gone, they become alumni. In the case of the Old Town School, one of our presenters [Thursday] has been taking classes at the school for 26 years,” Gordon said. “While most schools and most nonprofits don’t have an opportunity for the students to be heard and represented and influence the way the school is run, I would argue very strongly that this particular nonprofit, this particular school, should prioritize student input into their decision making.”
A town hall meeting is being organized by the Save the Old Town group for Saturday at Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln Ave., at 3 p.m.
“At that meeting, we plan to build and populate committees including: Class Enrollment; Fundraising; Marketing & Outreach; 909 Building Utilization; possibly others,” said Lauren Miller, another member of the Save the Old town group, during Thursday’s meeting. “Ultimately, we hope this can evolve into an Old Town School Student Advisory Board — a true partner for you and the administration, fully invested in building enrollment and helping raise money to ensure the School’s future.”
For more information on this town hall visit the its Facebook page.
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