Citizens for 65
Originally known as Citizens for Coffin and District 65, Citizens for 65 was an Evanston and Skokie, Illinois, community organization which formed to support Gregory C. Coffin, superintendent of Community Consolidated Schools District 65, and particularly his policies related to the integration of Evanston elementary schools. (District 65 is contiguous with Evanston but also overlaps a portion of the political boundaries of Skokie, Illinois.) Coffin, appointed superintendent of District 65 in 1966, had fallen out of favor with a majority of the elected seven-member Board of the school district. At a contentious School Board meeting of June 24, 1969, the Board majority chose not to renew Coffin’s contract as superintendent, effectively terminating his position as of June, 1970. Public outcry forced the Board to back away from this position, deferring any decision concerning Coffin’s leadership of the district to a future Board as constituted by the results of the next election. With three Board members choosing not to seek reelection and because of the political alignment of the remaining four members, the upcoming election would determine whether or not the Board would hold its anti-Coffin majority. The School Board election of April 11, 1970, effectively became a referendum on Coffin’s tenure.
District 65 had committed to the desegregation of its schools formally in 1964 and hired Coffin, then Superintendent of Schools in Darien, Connecticut, in 1966 to implement a plan to meet this goal. Among his accomplishments at Darien, at that time an all-white district, was the implementation of a program to bring non-white students into Darien classrooms, to hire non-white personnel, and to develop curricular plans and materials introducing students to racial and civil rights issues. Quoted in the December, 1965 issue of School Management, Coffin stated: “There are many all-white districts in the nation. They don’t have to get involved in civil rights at all but, for the sake of their children, they should. After all, with the tremendous mobility of all our people, chances are very good that today’s students in all-white communities will be living, working and traveling in mixed communities a good part of their lives. As teachers, we had better prepare them for that experience right now.” Public contention over Coffin’s superintendency soon centered on the chosen path of integration but also on personality conflicts and bureaucratic infighting between the superintendent and some members of the District 65 School Board. Among both supporters and detractors Coffin was known for a sometimes abrasive, impolitic demeanor.
In August, 1969, the School Board published a report explaining the intent of its majority (Mrs. Robert G. Seyl, John Thomas Buck, Franklin C. Gagen, and Mrs. Nathan Zimmerman) to not renew Coffin in his post. Stated problems included Coffin’s concept of the “Superintendent-Administration-Board” relationship, a lack of trust between Coffin and the Board, and Coffin’s brusque personality. A number of specific incidents and alleged administrative failures attending his tenure supplemented these more general concerns. The minority of the Board supporting Coffin (Laurence J. Fitzsimons, Dr. Allwyn H. Gatlin, and Dr. Lawrence G. Lavengood) cited his professional stewardship of the district and asserted his ability to work usefully with the Board. Lurking behind the administrative problems and frequently admitted intractability, professional and personal failings enumerated by the Board majority, was the matter of race. The great majority of Evanston’s black population supported Coffin in his work to construct an integrated rather than merely desegregated school system. Reprising his work in Darien, Coffin endeavored to hire minority teachers and administrators, used busing to move students from the essentially all-black Foster School to white schools, implemented staff training programs and instituted reforms to purge the curriculum of racial bias. Coffin and his supporters issued their own report in February, 1970, to counter the Board’s majority, emphasizing successes in integrating the schools and marshalling a number of arguments to assert that the children of District 65 were “receiving a good education.” Despite this report and the statements of the Board minority, many of Evanston’s white residents remained unconvinced of Coffin’s abilities to lead the district.
Evanston’s polarization over Coffin received considerable attention in the local and metropolitan press and garnered as well some national attention. Supporters viewed the attempt to dump Coffin as an assault on full-scale integration of the schools. Many of Coffin’s critics asserted their own commitment to integration and discounted supporters’ charges of racial insensitivity and sometimes of outright racism. An issue tangential to the dispute involved Evanston’s District 65 Caucus, an organization which even included some non-residents of the district and whose function was the selection of candidates for election to the School Board. At the time of the Coffin controversy the caucus system had come under attack as rigid, elitist, and generally supportive of the interests of the establishment white community.
Both camps mobilized for the election which would decide the major issue. Coffin opponents coalesced under the banner of the Community Education Committee and fielded a slate of three candidates for election to the School Board: Martha K. Baumberger, Norma Eason, and Sumner G. Rahr. Citizens for 65 formed its own slate of candidates, Bennett Johnson, Robert Marks, and Betty A. Papangelis, in effort to secure control of the Board, to retain Coffin, and to erode support for the privileged status the caucus system.
The opposing slates and their backers campaigned through late winter and early spring, 1970. In an election marked by an unprecedented voter turnout, the candidates supported by the Community Education Committee won a narrow victory. The anti-Coffin majority of the School Board was reaffirmed and enlarged by one more vote to stand at 5 to 2. The newly constituted School Board removed Coffin from his job as superintendent on April 17 and retained him in a reduced capacity as educational consultant until June 30 when his contract with District 65 expired.
In many ways, including the dissemination of skills associated with campaigning, electioneering, and public relations along with the formation of new, notably multiracial coalitions to achieve common goals, the School Board election of 1970 and the work of Citizens for 65 began a transformation of Evanston politics. While Citizens for 65 and pro-Coffin forces lost the April election, many individuals associated with the campaign later came to play significant roles in Evanston political and community affairs.
Found in 1 Collection or Record:
The records detail many of the issues and events associated with Gregory Coffin’s superintendency of Evanston’s Community Consolidated School District 65 and the contentious 1970 School Board election that determined his tenure.