Given all the problems social-service groups have to battle–crime, drugs, neighborhood disinvestment–they shouldn’t have time to fight each other. But that’s just what board members for Hull House and board members for its affiliate the Clarence Darrow Center have been doing for the last year: squabbling over who should run the southwest-side center.

The details of the struggle are fiercely disputed, but this much is certain: On August 22 the Hull House board accused the Clarence Darrow Center board of mismanagement and then fired it. Darrow’s board members contend that Hull House has no right to fire them and have countered with a lawsuit and a demand for $1 million.

“It was a coup,” says Paul McGrath, a member of the Darrow board. “They hired their own executive director for Darrow and then changed the locks to the doors. Their gall is amazing.”

But Hull House leaders see their actions as justified. “We are the fiscal agent for Darrow, and they are our affiliate,” says Gordon Johnson, executive director of Hull House. “We have a responsibility to hold them accountable for their management.”

The Darrow Center was formed in the 1950s as part of the Unitarian Church’s efforts to help communities around the city. Then, as now, it was based in LeClaire Courts, a low-rise Chicago Housing Authority complex. Over the years there was some tension in the community as blacks moved in and whites out, but the center continued to earn high marks for its day-care, health-care, family-planning, and job-training programs. In the last decade, under the direction of former executive director Stan Horn, community residents affiliated with Darrow even opened their own catering businesses and a bus service for reverse commuters.

“Stan and the board had a vision of Darrow being not just a place where people can get good day care for the kids, but a place where they can learn how to be economically self-sufficient,” says Malcolm Bush, a member of Darrow’s board. “You can provide social services until the cows come home, but if people aren’t self-sufficient it won’t matter.” He describes how Horn helped reinvigorate LeClaire’s tenants’ association, which eventually took over management of the complex.

For its efforts Darrow received widespread praise. But by 1980 this praise was obscuring the fact that the center was struggling to raise operating funds. Hull House, by contrast, was awash in cash and looking for affiliates. In return for help in fund-raising and doing its books, Darrow could offer Hull House a branch on the city’s southwest side. After months of negotiations the two signed an agreement–one of six Hull House signed with organizations around the city–that specified, among other things, that Hull House would help Darrow raise funds. “We didn’t know about fund-raising, and we didn’t have money to contribute ourselves,” says McGrath. “We felt that Hull House had the expertise to help us raise funds.”

But instead of helping Darrow raise money, Hull House used Darrow to raise funds for itself–or so Darrow’s board members contend. “Hull House would go to a funder, like United Way, and get a commitment of funds based on the performance of our day-care center,” says McGrath. “The checks would go to Hull House, which would then distribute them to us and its other affiliates.” In fact, all of Darrow’s funding came through Hull House.

In return, Hull House extracted a consultant’s fee. “Some of us were unhappy with the consultant’s fee–there was nothing mentioned about it in the affiliation agreement,” says McGrath. “Stan always wanted to break away from Hull House. He said, “If we weren’t paying them so much money, we’d be running a surplus.’ We thought about disaffiliating, but these were tough times and we had a lot of things going on. And people were scared that disaffiliation might upset some of our programs.”

By 1990 Hull House was taking roughly $150,000 in management fees, and tensions between the two organizations were growing. Horn had left Darrow for a new job, and the new director, Charles Jones, was not nearly as popular with the staff or community. The center was also in a precarious state. As its budget deficit rose, rumors circulated through LeClaire that Darrow might cut some programs or even close.

Darrow’s board president Woodrow Skinner denied these rumors, but residents were not convinced. By May 1991 the center was nearly $300,000 in debt, and the staff circulated petitions, which some 600 residents signed, asking Hull House to fire Skinner and Jones.

“I base the debt on bad management,” says Gordon Johnson. “They had hired too many people, particularly in their reverse-commute operation. They had no discipline. I told them that they had to rein expenses in.”

That’s a sensitive subject. Darrow’s board members think Johnson should have no say over their budget, which they say might have been balanced if not for Hull House’s “excessive” management fees. Johnson maintains that the deficit would be even higher if not for Hull House’s “managerial expertise.”

In an attempt at reconciliation the two groups agreed to meet over the summer and compromise on budget cuts. For a while they seemed to be making progress. They decided, for instance, to transfer the reverse-commuter program to the LeClaire Court tenants’ association, saving thousands of dollars. But by August they had stopped meeting.

“I think Gordon Johnson has a different vision of Darrow than we do,” says Malcolm Bush. “I had lunch with him several months ago, and his main concern was how Darrow’s director could be brought more closely under his supervision. As far as we’re concerned, Darrow is a semi-independent entity. It’s not appropriate for the director of Hull House to have that kind of control over a satellite.”

Johnson contends that Darrow’s board was dragging its feet on cuts. “We’d been trying to address this deficit for over 12 months, and they wouldn’t make the necessary changes. They hired people without the money to pay them. In May the Hull House board passed a resolution threatening to disaffiliate the Darrow board if they did not deal with the deficit. By July they had not complied.”

On August 22 the Hull House board members voted overwhelmingly that “the affiliation between [the Clarence Darrow Center] and the Hull House Association shall be terminated.”

But afterward there was some confusion as to what the resolution meant. Was it intended to terminate Hull House’s 11-year affiliation with the center, which was what it literally said? Or was it intended to disaffiliate Darrow’s board from the Darrow Center, which is how Johnson reads it? “We were disaffiliating the board,” says Johnson. “In effect, we were firing them.”

Then why didn’t the resolution say exactly that?

“In the resolution the Darrow Center and the Darrow board are meant as the same thing,” Johnson replies.

According to Johnson, Hull House’s leaders never intended to cut Darrow loose. On the contrary, they planned to get more involved. Sure enough, by the end of August Johnson had replaced Jones with Joanne Merritt, who had been an associate director at Hull House. Shortly thereafter the lock to the office of Darrow’s executive director was changed.

“The Darrow staff felt they were not getting the proper attention from the Darrow board, so we had to act,” says Johnson. “They use our not-for-profit accreditation to raise money; we have to have accountability.”

Darrow’s board members were livid. “The fact that there is this confusion over the resolution shows that most of the Hull House board members were unaware of what was going on,” says McGrath. “Basically, this is a power play by Johnson to take control of the Darrow Center.”

However, most of the staff and many residents have sided with Hull House. “We begged the Darrow board to take action, but they wouldn’t even return our calls,” says Phyllis Offord, Darrow’s director of child-care services. “They only wanted to tell us what to do. They didn’t take us seriously–it was like we had no knowledge or expertise.”

“We’re providing the services, and they’re out of touch,” adds Johnson. “They should just give it up.”

But the Darrow board members have vowed to go down fighting. Their lawsuit seeks a court order restraining Hull House from firing Jones, hiring Merritt, making derogatory remarks about the board, and undermining its “authority and relationship with Darrow Center employees.” It also demands that Hull House return $1 million in management fees. “We feel we have to go through with this suit, although I don’t think we have the time or energy to fight Hull House,” says Skinner. “It’s a fight no one needs. I think we all would agree to that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.