Central office gets more money, power

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On May 30, 1995, Gov. Jim Edgar signed the second sweeping reform act to hit the Chicago Public Schools in eight years. This one put the mayor in charge.

The first one, approved in December 1988, had put the people in charge; its key feature was creation of elected, parent-dominated local school councils (LSCs), with power to approve school improvement plans and the use of new discretionary funds and, most important, to select principals. The LSCs named district-level councils, which both hired district superintendents and named the bulk of a School Board Nominating Commission, which forwarded slates of candidates to the mayor.

Sparked by a record-long teacher strike (19 days), the Legislature bought into bottom-up school governance as an antidote to a centralized school administration that had made little progress on either the educational or financial fronts. But lawmakers didn’t touch school funding or school unions, which many reformers saw as roadblocks to significant progress.

Nonetheless, local control opened the doors to experimentation, new ideas and help from outside what had been a very closed system. Within three years, 40 percent of elementary schools were carrying out systemic educational improvements, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. However, district councils and superintendents generally failed to fulfill their responsibility to intervene at poorly performing schools. Meanwhile, hampered by the system’s longstanding financial problems and a divided Board of Education, Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough and his successor, Argie Johnson, did little to promote effective local control.

Johnson did take several steps toward school accountability, getting the Legislature to give her veto power over the retention of district superintendents. She also proposed a Three-Tiered Plan that would funnel advice and resources to the city’s lowest-performing schools. However, school reform leaders, with the backing of principals, resisted her reliance on test scores and were skeptical about the value of help from central office; a revision of Johnson’s plan was in the works when the Legislature decided a more forceful hand was needed.

In their second crack at Chicago schools, lawmakers not only handed unfettered appointment of the School Board and administration to the mayor, it also gave the new school leaders access to more money, relief from many union restrictions and new powers to intervene at failing schools. Local school councils retained their powers, but principals were made accountable to the chief executive officer as well, who now can veto contract renewals.

The 1995 act was crafted by the Republican leadership in the Illinois House and Senate, with ample input from Martin Koldyke, chairman of the Chicago School Finance Authority; the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago; and Chicago United, another business group.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, who says he saw the public schools adrift “in waste, fraud and corruption” without a stiff rudder to guide them, was given some input. “They had to listen because we were going to do the job they were handing us,” relates the mayor. The Republican leadership had planned to provide for a post that would combine the board chairmanship with chief executive officer, says Daley, but it yielded to his request for two posts instead, with a companion education officer. The mayor also won leeway for the School Board to play with education block grants, state money awarded the board for designated purposes.

Here are the highlights of the May 1995 legislation, Public Act 89-15:

MORE MONEY The Reform Board has benefited from being unshackled in its use of previously restricted funds. The board got license to collapse seven separate tax levies, for such items as playgrounds, special education and teacher pensions, into one levy, with proceeds flowing to general operations.

In addition, the board was allowed to apply savings from two state education block grants, now totaling $284 million a year for everything from preschool to gifted classes, to general purposes. “If we get $20 million for a certain activity and we can accomplish the activity for $18 million, we can spend the extra money elsewhere,” explains board Budget Director Christine Hoagland.

Further, the board can apply some $25 million in state Chapter 1 funds to general operations instead of forwarding them to schools to spend. Hoagland says the money is going toward new bottom-up initiatives such as small schools and Park Kids, an after-school program operated in tandem with the Chicago Park District.

And the board was given permission to budget a vacancy allowance, which accounts for natural delays in filling vacant positions; last year, the allowance gave the board an extra $14 million.

LESS UNION AUTHORITY The Legislature clipped the wings of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), lifting such items as class size and the academic calendar from collective bargaining, cutting the time required to remove an incompetent teacher from one year to six months and banning a strike for 18 months (through November 1996).

The Legislature also paved the way for use of private companies for various operations. So far, a portion of janitorial service has been farmed out to six companies, and experiments are underway with private food service firms.

MORE PRINCIPAL POWER In a move long championed by reform groups and the Chicago Principals Association, engineers and janitors fell under the direction of principals. “In the old days, engineers wouldn’t let us into the buildings during off-hours, or else they charged us a fortune in overtime,” says Beverly Tunney, president of the principals’ association. “Now we’re in charge.”

The engineers seem satisfied. “There have been some conflicts but nothing extraordinary,” reports Don McCue, president of Local 149 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. “It’s working out well.”

MORE SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY The ability to place failing schools on remediation and probation moved from subdistrict superintendents, whose jobs were eliminated, to central office. The Vallas administration has taken full advantage of the switch, placing 31 facilities under remediation and 109 on probation. Much as Argie Johnson had proposed, board-assigned teams are assessing the problems at probationed schools, and mentoring squads will work with principals and teachers on solutions. If nothing improves, the board is empowered to dump the principal and order new LSC elections. With certain restrictions, it can replace teachers, too.

The board can move directly against principals and LSCs in schools judged to be in “educational crisis.” It has taken advantage of this new authority at three schools, Hale Elementary and Prosser and Marshall high schools.

Also, the new law provided for a board-appointed Academic Accountability Council to “develop and implement a comprehensive system of review, evaluation and analysis of school performance,” keyed to state standards. But the state standards remain in draft form. “We’ve been in operation for a year, but we haven’t had any work to do,” relates chairman Leon Jackson, head of a small holding company and a Board of Education member in the early 1980s. The council meets periodically; it was not consulted before schools were placed on probation in September.

LESS OVERSIGHT The act ended the mission, if not the actual existence, of the Chicago School Finance Authority, an oversight agency established 15 years earlier to monitor the system’s shaky balance sheet and, subsequently, to monitor reform as well. “With a CEO, the board no longer needs an overseer,” says Koldyke. But since the SFA has $793 million in bonds outstanding, the last of them maturing in 2,009, “we couldn’t be mothballed entirely,” he explains. The five-person authority board continues to meet once a year; meanwhile, Koldyke is considering Vallas’ idea of having the SFA execute some new and creative capital financing.

In addition, the Office of Inspector General, which had been an arm of the Finance Authority, now reports to the School Board. But Public Act 89-15 broadened the office’s powers, and Inspector General Ken Holt, a former FBI agent, says that Vallas and Board President Gery Chico are more responsive to his findings than the previous regime had been. Before these two came on board, Holt had identified $19.2 million in wasteful practices, notably excess staff positions allotted to board playgrounds and stadiums and overtime rung up by school firemen. Holt says the Reform Board realized $13 million in savings through resulting staff cuts. Holt has kept his office on South Michigan Avenue to maintain an appearance of independence.

MORE LSC TRAINING All LSC members are now compelled to receive 18 hours of training, covering “legal requirements, role differentiation, responsibilities and authorities and improving student achievement” or forfeit their jobs. A joint effort orchestrated through the University of Illinois at Chicago led to the development of a six-lesson curriculum and the cultivation of 60 trainersLSC veterans, reform group figures and board administratorsto deliver it.

The trainers, under the command of the board’s Office of School and Community Relations, have been encouraged to teach LSCs in clusters of two or three, in sessions held on a variety of days, and at convenient times. Even so, attendance has been far from universal. Rudolph Serna, deputy director of school and community relations, estimates it’s been running 50 percent to 60 percent. Makeup lessons are being held at central office.