Councils gearing up for Springfield

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It’s a Saturday morning in August, and about a dozen members of various local school councils are convened at a downtown office building for a five-hour workshop. Each participant has a gray folder assembled especially for the session.

Stuffed with papers, the folder constitutes a primer for the budding lobbyist. It includes a telephone directory of state senators and representatives, a seating chart for both houses of the General Assembly, sample bills, tips for mounting letter-writing campaigns and exercising influence, and a flow chart on how a bill becomes law in Illinois.

Leading the legislative overview with an air of authority and a voice to match is Cheryl Aaron, a community representative from the Gershwin LSC. Aaron earned her stripes as a grass-roots advocate by working with school reform groups and trekking down to Springfield.

Aaron cites her two rules of politics—deny what goes wrong, take credit for what goes right—then exhorts the group to become more active in the school reform arena. “Your local school council needs to learn how to assert its role because it has been complacent too long.”

LSCs’ authority eroded

Over the past two years, council advocates say, a series of new state laws and Reform Board policies and actions have eroded councils’ ability to guide their schools. They cite a host of concerns ranging from disregard: the new school directory does not include LSC chairs, to a loss of power: a 1996 state law allows the school system’s chief executive officer to veto a council’s decision to renew its principal’s contract. (For other changes in LSC powers, see story.)

Now, activist school council members are organizing to fight back.

Last spring, the councils mounted a successful petition campaign to ensure that $261 million of state Chapter 1 funds would continue going directly to schools for discretionary use. In less than 10 days, LSCs say, they collected more than 4,000 signatures and delivered them downstate. None of the four legislative leaders recalls getting any pro-LSC pressure on the issue, but other legislators say the message came through.

It is unclear whether the $261 million was truly in jeopardy, but LSC leaders weren’t taking any chances. Repeatedly in recent years, state Chapter 1 has been targeted as a source of money to balance the school system’s budget.

One win for the LSCs

Councils did score a coup by pressuring state lawmakers to tone down a bill that would have opened the door for Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas to handpick business advisors to sit on LSCs. Outraged by what they dubbed the “spy bill,” councils deluged legislators with phone calls. Sen. Arthur L. Berman (D-Chicago) called a meeting with school reformers to come up with a compromise. New language in the bill, now on the governor’s desk, limits such intervention to situations where councils fail to perform their fiscal duties “effectively.”

“That was a very important win for us,” says Aaron. “We finally got together and made our voice heard.”

More political activism

To amplify LSC voices, the Chicago Association of Local School Councils (CALSC) has created the position of advocacy director and tapped Goldblatt LSC Chair James Hammonds (also a Catalyst editorial board member) to fill it; Hammonds will coordinate strategy with the group’s policy committee, which is meeting to hammer out a legislative agenda. Both CALSC and Designs for Change held legislative training sessions for council members over the summer. And a longstanding idea for LSCs to launch their own political action committee is gaining new life.

Just how a school council PAC would raise enough money to back candidates for office is another matter. “Pass the hat,” Sheila Castillo, CALSC executive director, suggests off the cuff.

“Political activism, as I see it, is a means of protecting, safeguarding, the central focus of school reform, which is local management,” says Raelynne Toperoff, director of the Teachers’ Task Force. “It’s necessary, and it’s critical to the survival of school reform.”

The Teachers’ Task Force belongs to a coalition of reform groups called the LSC Summit that meets regularly to keep tabs on new School Board policies and map out strategies. Other groups in the Summit include Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, CALSC and Designs for Change.

In the short run, LSCs and reform groups are focusing on the fall veto session, when school finance and other reform issues may be revived. They also are on guard against further loss of power.

Recentralization on horizon?

“There is some possibility, a good possibility, that someone will introduce a bill in [the 1998 session] to give all authority for [choosing] principals to the School Reform Board,” says Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw (R-Naperville).

Vallas says that someone won’t be him. “The board already has all the power it needs on the principal selection and retention issue. At this point, that’s as far as we need to go.”

“The majority of councils, probably 95 percent, we have an absolutely delightful relationship with,” he adds. “Some are still trying to fight the central office-council battles of years gone by.”

However, other groups stand to gain from a recentralization of power. University of Chicago Associate Professor Kenneth Wong, who specializes in education policy and politics, cites both principals and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The initial school reform bill was, in part, anti- union, he notes.

Toperoff of the Teachers’ Task Force even says that the teachers union wouldn’t mind seeing money for council elections and training redirected to teacher salaries.

Principal position

In 1989, the Chicago Principals Association filed a legal challenge (ultimately unsuccessful) to the School Reform Act over the loss of tenure that came with LSC power to select and sign principals to four-year contracts. Even today, the group’s leadership opposes LSCs’ having power over their employment.

“I don’t think [LSCs] should be allowed to hire and fire the principal,” says association president Beverly Tunney. “I certainly think they should have input, but the real, final decision should be made by someone who’s accountable for school progress.”

Rep. Cowlishaw, who sits on the House Education Committee, says she would oppose further LSC limitations.

“I think we ought to increase the power of local school councils, not decrease it,” she says. “To whom do the schools belong? Not the School Board. [Schools] work best when the most people take an interest. The more we involve the people who live in the attendance area—they all pay taxes— the better schools you’ll have.”

However, Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones (D-Chicago), a sponsor of the original Reform Act, says he would entertain proposals to ensure that councils use state Chapter 1 money for kids who lag behind academically.

“I support LSCs and parent involvement,” says Jones, a sponsor of the original Reform Act. “The more parents involved, the better children do in school. [But] I don’t think money should be spent on LSCs taking trips.”

LSCs in Springfield

Jones adds that LSCs did themselves no favors in Springfield by failing to rally around proposals to reform and increase state school funding, a complaint that Vallas makes as well. Jones reports that council members from his district initially hedged on the issue.

“The same folks who are the beneficiaries of [school finance reform] were not down there lobbying,” says Jones. “It was quite disturbing. LSCs coming downstate need to be better equipped and know what’s going on.”

LSC and reform groups say that’s an unfair criticism because parents have been asking for more state money all along. “It is so blatantly inaccurate,” says Castillo. “How many times have parents said we need more money for public education?”

A Parents March in April attracted busloads of parents and LSC members to Springfield to lobby for increased state funding for schools.

On the Republican side of the aisle, Brian Timpone, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst), echoes Jones’ concern about state Chapter 1. He notes plenty of talk in Springfield about expanding the current investigation of state Chapter 1 spending at Clemente High to other schools. “Local school councils have a role,” he says, “but we cannot sponsor abuse.”

Despite such concerns, relatively few of the system’s some 550 LSCs have been cited for inappropriate conduct. However, those cases, especially Clemente, have received widespread media attention.

Meanwhile, LSC advocates are pushing a bill of their own (HB 1202) to form a Task Force on Harassment Suppression; the 27-member body would investigate allegations of principal abuse of power. Advocates say the measure is needed because the board has rebuffed pleas for help in a number of situations, including:

A principal who allegedly got rid of an antagonistic local school council by transferring members’ children, along with others, under the guise of overcrowding relief.

A principal who fired a relative of a council member who voted against the school’s improvement plan and renewal of her contract; the relative was a longtime school employee.

A principal who harassed a council member who found and reported violations in the school’s special education program.

The task force bill failed to make it out of committee, but CALSC’s Aaron says supporters hope to advance the measure downstate next spring.

Good words for Vallas administration

Local conflicts aside, LSC members interviewed by Catalyst say that in some ways, the Vallas administration has made their job easier. Stanley Hitchins, LSC chair at Taft High School, for example, cites the decentralization of maintenance work. “Five years ago, the board had their foot on everything,” he says. “You couldn’t buy a sack of grass seed without board approval. The new board has put the control back in schools.”

“Right now we have an administration that is very accessible,” says Deputy Chief Education Officer Carlos Azcoitia, who until last month headed the Office of School and Community Relations. “Local school councils really have a lot of accessibility to our office and the office of the CEO that they haven’t had before. We’ve done many things to assist the councils in what they do.”

The University of Chicago’s Wong agrees. He says LSC policy changes under Vallas are aimed at shoring up lagging councils. “Some are running a tight ship, others are lagging,” he says. “The more effective LSCs are not going to be affected by any policies coming down from Vallas. Those who are way behind are going to be affected a great deal.”

Wong also notes that the administration has backed legislation sought by LSCs, including the shift in LSC elections from fall to report card pickup day in the spring, which reversed a decline in voter turnout.

Local school councils pose a dilemma for legislators, says the professor. “They don’t want to be seen as backing off of parent empowerment, but they don’t want to seem weak on accountability.”