Board Oks overnight retreats, limits parent stipends

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Responding to opposition from school reform advocates and local school councils, the School Reform Board of Trustees has backed off its proposal to ban the use of State Chapter 1 funds for overnight and out-of-town school retreats.

It also dropped a proposal to limit the number of hours a parent could be paid for working at a school—it had proposed a maximum of three per day. However, it did enact a limit on stipends that may be paid to parents, students and community members and who work in schools. While the original proposal called for different rate limits for different groups—$4.25 per hour for CPS students, $5.27 for college students and $7.74 for parents and community members—the board finally opted for one limit, $7.74.

In addition, the board adopted the proposed requirement that schools submit educational justification forms for retreats, out-of-town travel and the hiring of consultants. The forms cover such issues as how the proposed spending supports the school improvement plan, how a consultant or retreat site was selected, a consultant’s track record, and the intended impact on student achievement. The forms will be reviewed by the board’s education and budget offices, according to Chief Purchasing Officer Diane Minor.

“We listened, and I think that we came up with a good balance between LSCs’ flexibility and the focus we have on educational improvement,” says Chief Policy Officer Leonard Dominguez.

The new administration issued the proposed state Chapter 1 guidelines after the Chicago Sun-Times published a number of articles targeting school spending that it considered scandalous. At the same time, the administration scheduled a series of hearings for feedback.

School reform groups and local school council members particularly objected to the proposed prohibitions on school retreats. (See CATALYST, November 1995.)

“I am pleased that they saw the light,” says Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project. “The board finally realized that they only have a broad range of powers that do not apply to State Chapter 1 funds.”

O’Hagin and other reform advocates question the stipend cap, though.

“Somehow, there seems to be the sense at the board that what parents are doing at schools is not valuable,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education. “But maybe the LSC considers it valuable. And if the LSC wants to pay a parent $10 because that parent possesses certain qualities that are worth $10 to the school, it should be allowed to do that.”

Minor says the stipend cap is aimed at preventing principals or LSCs from playing favorites. “In the worst-case scenario, [an LSC] would pay someone they liked more and someone they didn’t like less, and principals had no recourse,” she says.

Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says she’s glad the whole issue has been resolved. “What any of this has to do with what’s best for kids—I don’t know,” she observes. “It seems that people are more concerned with ‘this is my turf, not your turf.’

“These power struggles between the board and the LSCs are not productive,” she adds. “The LSCs should focus on making parents better parents, the students should focus on being the best students they can be, and principals should focus on having better schools. People should start focusing on what’s really important, because right now, we’re all over the map on dumb things that don’t matter.”

O’Hagin agrees that power struggles are a waste of time, but she faults the board. “The LSC’s have had to say, ‘Look, these are our powers—get it?’ We need you help—not your limitations.”

Minor says her office plans to distribute pointers for hiring consultants. “What I saw in many cases was that on paper it was not clear why the consultants were chosen. What concerned me is whether LSCs are able to document what consultants do and what impact it had on student achievement levels.”

In some cases, she says, “we saw the same documentation, Xeroxed with the same answers for different schools. … I would venture to say that consultants prepared the evaluations themselves, and the school just signed them.”

Minor says she hopes that forms themselves will help educate principals and LSCs. If a school cannot provide reasons for planned expenditures, she adds, the board will assume something is wrong and investigate.