Dwayne Truss

On July 15, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a surprise announcement that she was replacing Chicago Board of Education member Dwayne Truss, a longtime Austin education activist, with former alderman Michael Scott Jr.

Truss, whose term ended in June, was appointed to the school board in 2019. During a lengthy interview with Austin Weekly News last month, Truss talked about the circumstances of his leaving the board and about the history of education (and how it intersects with development and race) in Chicago.

On the circumstances of his removal

In May, the mayor’s office reached out to me about extending my term on the Board of Education. We had done a lot of good things, I believe and I wanted to continue that work. There’s still a lot to do. So, I said, ‘Yes, I would love to continue.’ The mayor’s office indicated that they would love to extend my term.

And then, I got a phone call on July 7 that I would not be reappointed and the mayor is moving in a different direction.

The speculation was that the decision to not extend you was related to your stance on the proposed construction of a new high school on the Near South Side, near Chinatown. From your perspective, is that accurate?

I would say that that speculation would be [accurate] based on the circumstances. I supported the investment into a high school in that area, because the demographics supported it. What I did not support was the fact that CPS was not transparent about where they were looking to place the high school — on 24th and State Street. That’s the former Harold Ickes Housing Development, where there was promised mixed-income housing.

We have a serious housing crisis in Chicago. And I felt that all stakeholders should have been engaged, especially those stakeholders and community groups who advocate for affordable housing. For me, it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to accommodate Chinatown, South Loop and Bridgeport at the expense of poor Black people. That was not sitting well with me.

I aggressively pushed [Chicago Public Schools] CPS management to really engage all the groups. Several of us expressed our disappointment in CPS, because the engagement they conducted was last minute, like a checklist to say, ‘Well, we engaged them, so we can move forward.’ That was not sitting well with me.

In fact, when we had the interim CEO, Dr. Jose Torres, he did conduct an equity study in terms of the impact of the Near South Side high school and it didn’t look so good. It just demonstrated the negative impact it would have on surrounding schools in that area. That’s why, again, some of us board members were pushing to start engagement last year, in the fall. Because that study that Dr. Torres initiated, the results of it did not look well. In Chicago, the money follows the student, so if you lose 10 to 15 students, that’s pretty much a teacher.

You spoke about the degree to which developers drive these sorts of discussions and right now there is more development urgency and money flowing into the South Loop, Chinatown and Bridgeport than there is over by Crane. This is seen now as a neighborhood hot enough to invest in?

We have to look at this ugly reality in Chicago. People like to say that they’re all for supporting education in an equitable manner. Well, let me just put it like this, as I like to quote my mother and auntie, Dr. Ruth, who got a PhD. in growing up in the South and surviving that: ‘If you want to know the state of play of America in Chicago, go to church on Sunday.

Can you translate that?

When you get to the developers and the families, they’re like, ‘We want a high school good enough for our children?’ But Crane is not good enough? Tilton’s not good enough? Even Perspectives Charter School — a brand new school at Archer and State Street. That’s not good enough? It’s like putting the cart before the house. When the development happens, it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, we need a school.’

Remember South Loop Magnet School? It was built in order to attract middle class families to come in. A lot of white students attended and Black kids from all over the city were bussed there. As families saw that it was a great school, families were like, ‘We need to convert this from a magnet school to a neighborhood school.’

The school outgrew its footprint and they built another school, because they are not going to send their kids to certain schools. They’re not going to go to the same church and they’re not going to send their kids to schools with majority Black students.

So, we go back to the [Near South Side] school that’s proposed. Again, does it have to be at the expense of poor Black people? This onion has so many layers, the more you peel back, the more it stinks.

CPS told us they were going to swap land with CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] on 23rd and 24th, and Wabash. And they were going to put some of the CHA houses on Wabash. It sounded fair, except you get to the fact that CPS does not own that land. How are we going to swap something we don’t own?

And then, I read in a newspaper that CPS would purchase the land at a below market rate and swap it with CHA. So, now you have a situation where we’re using public tax dollars that are supposed to go for education on development. So, we’re going to buy the land, put market rate housing there so developers can make a killing using public dollars that are supposed to be for schools?

During your time on the school board, where do you see CPS having made progress for the West Side?

I would say not a whole lot. Black West Side of Chicago has to really organize and come up with a game plan. It’s no big secret that North Lawndale has been lobbying for an investment in a new school. We told them to do more community engagement before going forward with that investment. And yet, there’s no community engagement going on with the proposed South Loop school, but they’re still pushing forward fast and hard.

I think that tells you, when you talk about the respective communities. Again, you’re talking about building schools in neighborhoods with declining enrollment. You tell one neighborhood no and tell the other neighborhood, ‘Full steam ahead.’ Darn the facts.

What’s a key accomplishment from your term on the school board?

We did a lot of great things. One big piece we accomplished was putting that ‘rubber-stamped board’ moniker to sleep. Initially, it was like, ‘Oh, the mayor’s rubber-stamped school board.’  But in the last few years, you did not hear that, because my colleagues and I did an awesome job. We went in to do the work of the students and families we’re serving. It was about us serving our fiduciary responsibility. So, I’m just happy that nobody can refer to us as a rubber-stamped board.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com