Emails: CPS CEO Said Allegations of HPAHS Closing Were “Hoaxed”

CPS e-mails obtained through a records request show how officials responded to a seemingly untrue allegation that Hyde Park Academy High School will be closed.

By Pete Grieve and Caroline Kubzansky

Internal e-mails show that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) appears to have been telling the truth when it denied allegations from activists that Hyde Park Academy (HPA) was likely to be closed.

Documents obtained through a public records request show how CPS officials responded to an inquiry from the Hyde Park Herald about allegations of closure from community organizers and an aldermanic candidate who cited an anonymous source in their claim.

The Herald published a story on March 14 about the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization’s press conference where organizers alleged that the land would be sold due to its proximity to the site of the Obama Presidential Center. The article stated that CPS strongly denied all allegations, and, to be clear, the Herald did not suggest in its story that they had independently verified the allegation.

At the press conference last month, Jawanza Malone of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization claimed that they had heard from an anonymous source that the high school would be demolished to make way for luxury housing developments near the Center’s Jackson Park site.

In the documents, a CPS official says that the Herald told them that they reviewed e-mails provided to them by the community organizers before publication—presumably “off the record.”

“I talked to [Daschell Phillips], who is the editor over there. They claim they have seen emails,” one CPS e-mail said.

In another exchange, a CPS employee wrote: “Hyde Park Herald reached out about whether CPS plans to close Hyde Park High School or whether the District talks with developers to sell the facility. Good to deny? Let me know.”

“I'll respond – thanks!” a CPS spokeswoman, Emily Bolton, replied.

“Awesome thx,” the first communications employee wrote back.

Bolton wrote to the Herald: "This is false. CEO Jackson was asked this question earlier at a public event; here was her response: 'That couldn't be further from the truth. You are talking to a proud Hyde Park graduate. Hyde Park isn't going anywhere. Period.'"

Obama Foundation official Michael Strautmanis also tweeted that the activists were spreading rumors. “HPA is a great partner to the OPC & we can’t wait to do more with HPA families & other youth. Why the need to spread false rumors? We’re better than that.”

The e-mails show that a PR strategist who is working for the Obama Foundation, managing director of Kivvit Sophie McCarthy, sent an e-mail to CPS officials expressing frustration that the Herald ran a story about the rumor, which she wrote was an "irresponsible" decision.

"It feels to me they should be called to task for this," she wrote, suggesting that CPS call the Herald editor to complain. 

In response, CPS press secretary Michael Passman wrote the e-mail where he noted that the Herald editor claimed they had reviewed e-mails. 

The Obama Foundation issued a statement from Strautmanis in response to a Maroon inquiry for this story: "Hyde Park Academy is a great neighbor and partner to the Obama Foundation. In just the past few months, we've brought Mrs. Obama and Prince Harry to meet with Hyde Park Academy students, and launched an internship program being piloted with students from Hyde Park Academy and other South Side schools. We look forward to many more opportunities to partner and collaborate with local youth at Hyde Park Academy and beyond."

The records request returned an e-mail from Jackson to HPA principal Antonio Ross regarding the allegations.                                                                        

“Spoke to media and told them its hoaxed,” she said. “I will have my comms team send you something.”

Ross appears to have reached out to CPS when he was forwarded an e-mail with information about the allegations from Kimberley Webb, Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston's chief of staff. Webb said Tuesday that their whole office knew the allegations were wrong. She explained that she reached out to Ross to try to figure what was going on. 

 Hairston's challenger in the aldermanic race, Gabriel Piemonte, is part of the group publicizing the possible closure of HPAHS. During a phone call Tuesday morning, Piemonte stood by their claim that developers are anticipating the school will be sold, though he did acknowledge that it is basically just a "rumor" given that their claim is based on an anonymous source. 

At the press conference last month, a Chicago Tribune reporter notified Malone that Jackson had denied the claim hours before. Malone said he wanted to hear the same information from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mouth.

Asked Monday night if he stands by his claim despite the new evidence, Malone said, “Yes!” 

CPS did not return a request for comment, and inquiries to HPAHS had previously been directed to CPS's communications team. Herald editor Daschell Phillips said that the Herald had no comment.