Council groups fight board over legislative proposal

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Since mid-March, the School Board has been locked in a struggle with advocates for local school councils over board proposals to amend the Chicago School Reform Act. The board says the measures are needed for accountability; the advocates contend they would return schools to central control.

Legislators have repeatedly demanded that the two sides seek a compromise, and local civic organizations reportedly have been trying to craft one. However, as Catalyst goes to press in late April, no compromise has emerged, and none seems imminent.

The most hotly contested provision would reduce the authority of local school councils in deciding whether to renew a principal’s four-year contract. Under the proposed law, an LSC’s decision could be appealed to a three-member panel, which would make a recommendation to the School Board.

Other parts of the board’s proposed legislation would require LSC members to submit to criminal background checks, give board officials a new intervention tool to regulate possible financial mismanagement, and set some new restrictions on councils when principals are being selected.

Board officials have dropped several controversial proposals and modified others since unveiling their wish list on March 17. For example, the original legislation would have allowed the board to establish a code of conduct for LSC members and to remove any members who failed to meet the code’s requirements; that measure was dropped. On the matter of principal retention, the School Board and the general superintendent would have been the only parties involved in deciding whether to overturn a council’s decision; the three-member panel later was added as a compromise.

As Catalyst goes to press, no legislative committee in either house has voted on any of the board’s proposals. With reform groups fighting back, the Senate Education Committee passed a “shell bill,” Senate Bill 652, in the hopes that compromise language could be added as an amendment later.

Principal retention

The shell bill came before the House Education Committee in mid-April. Although board officials announced some changes, they presented no new language to the House committee, making the debate, in the words of committee Chair Larry Woolard (D-Carterville), “a discussion on something that ain’t.” The committee heard arguments for and against the board’s proposals but took no action. At press time, the committee was scheduled to take up the bill again on April 28.

On April 21, Catalyst obtained a copy of the latest legislative language. Here is a summary of the proposal on the hot-button principal-retention issue, as of that date:

In deciding whether to renew a principal’s contract, LSCs would be required to consider four criteria: the length of a principal’s tenure, instructional leadership, school management and “the effective implementation of programs, policies or strategies to improve student academic achievement.” Board officials would be required to use the same four criteria in their annual evaluations of principals.

An LSC’s decision to let a principal go at the end of a four-year contract would be subject to review if the principal had received a satisfactory rating or better on his or her most recent evaluation by School Board officials. The review would occur only if the principal, an LSC member or the CEO requested it.

Reviews would be conducted by a three-member committee, with the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the board’s Local School Council Advisory Board and the board’s Academic Accountability Council each sending a representative.

The committee would be bound to consider the same factors as LSCs, plus any reasons provided by the LSC for its decision and any views expressed by students, parents, school faculty and staff, and community members.

The committee would make a recommendation to the board, which would have the final say.

Board officials say the proposal would simply provide clearer criteria for deciding whether to retain sitting principals. “Currently, the school reform law provides no criteria on which the renewal decision is to be made,” says a flyer the board sent to LSC members in late March. “As a result, principals who have received positive evaluations from the general superintendent—and even from the LSC—are sometimes refused a new contract.

The new rules would provide a check on councils who aren’t doing a good job, according to Beverly Tunney, president of the principals association, which strongly supports the board’s proposals. “The two words that we’re stressing right now are accountability and fairness,” says Tunney. “We don’t want bad principals in schools. We want to be accountable. The reform groups [who oppose the bill] don’t understand the variances in councils. You can have a wonderful council, or you can have one that can’t get a quorum together. There’s really no one who makes sure things are done in the right way.”

Many supporters of local school councils are dead-set against the proposal, saying that it would strip LSCs of their ability to weed out bad principals. Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) claims that the provision “would take CPS back to the days when principals had lifetime tenure” and cites recent figures showing that no sitting principal received less than a satisfactory rating from central office last year. “Our schools can hardly be considered so successful that all our principals have earned a satisfactory or better rating.”

The board’s proposals “would turn LSCs into advisory councils,” says Steve DeBretto, director of the North River Commission, a Northwest Side community group. DeBretto says that in making the rounds of LSCs in his group’s area, he’s found little support for the board’s proposals. “Overwhelmingly, people are pretty upset with it,” he says. “While there may be some problems that Vallas has pinpointed, there’s no need to change the legislation. There’s a very delicate balance of power right now, and Senate Bill 652 would skew that.”

“It’s important for communities to have the right to make their own decisions, whether we like them or not,” says Corretta McFerren, a School Board consultant and director of WSCORP, a West Side community group.

One possible avenue for compromise may be the venue in which appeals of LSC decisions are heard. Opponents see the current committee as being stacked against LSCs: two members come from groups appointed entirely or in large part by the School Board, and the third would be a representative from the principals’ group. “That’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” scoffs McFerren.

Possible compromises

Woestehoff suggests that her group may be open to discussing alternatives on this issue. “There are other models, both from industry and education,” she notes, giving the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board as one example.

Tunney sees it as an area open for discussion. “We’re certainly willing to compromise. We’re not afraid of who this review board is,” she says. “We want this to be as professional as possible. I do feel there should be a principal on the review board, because unless you’ve walked a mile in our moccasins, you can’t really know the challenges we face.”

Board officials considered expanding their proposed review board in late April, but as Catalyst went to press, no details were available.

Tunney and Woestehoff both agreed that the board’s current principal-evaluation process could be improved. The Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC), an arm of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, will pilot a new principal-evaluation process next year; both Tunney and Woestehoff expressed support for the effort.

The controversy on principal evaluation may have a silver lining, says John Ayers, director of Leadership for Quality Education, another arm of the Civic Committee. “The result of the fight over 652 is that we all better be doing a better job with principal evaluation,” he says. “When all the dust settles, the real work is gonna be figuring out how to do training of LSCs and principals in a way that helps them and leads to professional development and school improvement.”

At press time, the Civic Committee was widely reported to be working with another business group, Chicago United, to bring both sides together but were making little headway. Staff for the two groups declined to comment on the reports.

Rep. Edgar Lopez (D-Chicago) also was trying to start negotiations, but he wasn’t optimistic. “At this point, I don’t think CPS wants to negotiate,” he told Catalyst.

Lopez’s assessment echoed comments CEO Paul Vallas made to the House Education Committee in mid-April: ‘We are not going to compromise with ourselves or with groups that don’t want any change,” Vallas said. ”You can water a bill down into oblivion.”