In the throes of a tough reelection campaign, 32nd Ward alderman Ted Matlak apparently tried to make a few Bucktown parents happy by lobbying Chicago Public Schools officials to expand enrollment at the local Drummond Montessori Magnet School, where admission is determined by a lottery that limits the number of children admitted from the immediate neighborhood in order to promote diversity. He ended up fueling a bitter controversy there, as the Chicago Journal reported this week. 

After the story came out, the local school council scheduled a meeting for April 11. That evening at least 60 people—including Matlak’s challenger in this coming Tuesday’s runoff election, Scott Waguespack—jammed into the school library. Sabrina Craig, chair of the council, announced at the beginning of the meeting that neither she nor other council members would be able to answer any questions—they were just there to listen.

For the next hour, as the LSC members and principal Isabel Mesa Collins remained silent at the front of the room, parents took turns speaking, often emotionally, about their love of the school and their commitment to diversity. But they also argued vehemently, often questioning each other’s motives and integrity.

Some argued that it was only fair for kids who live across the street to be able to attend the school, while others said if parents were interested in neighborhood schools, they should check out Burr School, a few blocks away. A couple of parents were concerned that the space crunch would force three- and four-year-old students to nap in the basement, prompting a father to respond that when his daughter was asleep, her eyes were closed and it didn’t matter where she was.

They couldn’t agree on who the new classroom would benefit or how fair the process of getting it funded had been. In fact, they couldn’t even agree on exactly what had been agreed to.

“I guess my concern is, how does a group of parents who are not even at the school get to make a decision for parents who are already in the school?” said one mother of a Drummond student. “I don’t have the money, I don’t have the clout, to walk into the alderman’s office and make radical changes that are going to affect people currently in this institution.”

“I am one of those parents whose child did not get in, and I do live five doors down,” said Bucktown resident Jennifer Kelly. She emphasized that she understood and respected the fact that a lottery decided who was admitted. “But I kind of resent these letters being passed around that say there’s a small group of people in the neighborhood who are well-connected. I don’t have any money. I didn’t give any money to any organization. I don’t know the alderman. I went into the alderman’s office and I asked for a meeting. Everybody’s entitled to that.”

Waguespack left without speaking to get to another event, and a few minutes later Matlak walked in and delivered something between a campaign pitch and a lecture.

“It was brought to my attention that this has become controversial,” he said. “It’s finally come to a point where people want to come to our neighborhood schools. Now we had a situation where parents came to me, not just that group that came in and saw me, but individual parents who called me and came in on their own, saying, ‘We can’t get in to this school—it’s a good school, and we want to be there.’ I saw that the only solution to that was to add capacity.”

Schools chief Arne Duncan had agreed to fund another teacher, Matlak said, and he would find city money for capital improvements if he needed to. “But people are asking me questions about which kids, how, what. I don’t know. This was supposed to be a good thing,” he said. “If bringing resources in is bad, I don’t know what I’m doing as alderman, because that’s what I do. People are asking me where the nap room is going and all those things. I don’t know.”

Sumi Cho, a Drummond parent who lives in the South Loop, raised her hand to ask a question. “Are you willing to consider rescinding the the [new] early childhood classroom in light of the fact that there are so many questions about the process, and the appearance, at least, of impropriety in light of the impending runoff election?”

Matlak looked like he’d been slapped. He said he’d never heard of a school returning resources. “And I don’t know what you mean by ‘impropriety,’” he said. He asked Cho if she wanted him to take back money he’d secured for a new playground-park at the school. “And my campaign paid for those [traffic] barricades out there. You want me to take those back too?”

Craig, the LSC chair, interrupted. “I’m going to cut the dialog. I’m sorry, but we’re here to listen—”

“That’s fine,” Matlak said. “Just so you guys don’t think I unilaterally decided this and I can unilaterally undecide it. This was a big lobbying effort and we were successful. If you want to tell Arne Duncan we don’t want the resources, I’m sure he’ll put them someplace else.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Craig.

“I think this is a good thing,” Matlak said. “Any time we can bring resources into the schools, into the parks, that’s good. How it gets done, I don’t know. I’m Kennedy, I was told, ‘Let’s go to the moon,’ I got the money.”

The room broke into equal parts of applause and grumbling. The alderman thanked everyone and left. 

Before the meeting ended, though, Mark Neidlinger, Drummond’s Montessori director, said he’d just received some school data from CPS: nearly half of Drummond’s students already live within a mile and a half of the school–more than many parents on either side of the issue expected. And apparently more than Matlak had assumed.

On Thursday, Matlak addressed the controversy with considerably less bluster than he’d shown the night before. In a vaguely worded statement, he said that he was working with CPS administrators and the school’s faculty and parents to “make the best decisions possible for the short- and long-term future of Drummond.” He added: “The [CPS] Office of Academic Enhancement revealed today that the percentage of neighborhood children who attend Drummond is much higher than previously thought.”