Huge effort generates only 2 more candidates

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The number of candidates for local school councils barely inched up from the number two years ago despite increases in private-sector support for candidate recruitment and leadership development.

In 1998, there were 7,093 parent, community and teacher candidates; in this election, there are 7,095.

Even so, those involved in the campaign to recruit candidates were quick to claim a victory, albeit a qualified one. “We were very pleased with the outcome,” says Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education. “We were concerned that this would be a very bad year.” Last spring, Woestehoff points out, the board’s chief executive, Paul Vallas, led a fight in the state legislature to strip councils of some key powers.

“A year after the entire situation was in complete limbo—which is the most charitable way I can say it—we have strengthened our network of people who care about this, and raised public attention,” says Andy Wade, director of the Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative.

Wade’s group was founded in 1999, partly in response to flagging private-sector support for LSC recruitment in the 1998 elections. Working with the business-backed, non-profit Leadership for Quality Education, Wade’s group raised $420,000 in private funding to support election outreach this year, more than tripling the amount raised in 1998 including a quarter-million dollars that went to community organizations to recruit candidates in their neighborhoods and promote voter turnout.

James Deanes, director of the board’s Office of School and Community Relations, which administers the LSC elections, says he’s “encouraged” by the results even though the numbers are not improving.

“We see dwindling numbers of candidates because of the different commitments parents have to make in other parts of their lives, including … [having] to work two or more jobs just to survive,” he says. “Notwithstanding that, we still have the largest volunteer pool of people serving in what they know is a very difficult job of any school district in the country.”

This year, the board worked with the Cooperative to train 210 community-based LSC recruiters, who were authorized to sign up prospective candidates. As in 1998, the board paid a stipend to an LSC coordinator at each school in the district. However, the board’s total budget for the LSC elections dropped by $475,000 from 1998, to $1.25 million, according to Estelle Jarrett of School and Community Relations, who is managing this year’s elections.

In the week following the nomination deadline, Catalyst asked more than a dozen organizers from groups receiving Cooperative funding about their recruitment experiences; several themes emerged.

Overall, many felt the Board of Education could have done more to promote the elections. “They’re not malevolent,” says Kate Thomas, who did outreach work for the Edgewater Community Council on the North Side. “They didn’t do anything destructive. But they didn’t get out there with their pom-pons either.”

“I think we could find a lot of things we could have done better,” Deanes acknowledges, “but I think we’ve become more responsive to the ideas… that we get from outside groups.” He cites new outreach to the downtown business community and an earlier kickoff for candidate sign-up, including an early pitch by Mayor Richard M. Daley, as examples. Some organizers gave the board low marks for running low on printed materials, especially in Spanish; for poor follow-through on a promise to put materials in local libraries; for setting the nomination deadline relatively early; and for not sending a stronger message to principals that strong councils are a high priority. Some would have liked a more comprehensive public-awareness campaign, and others lament that the board’s ethics policy, which bars council members from doing any paid work at their schools, prevented some worthy candidates from signing up.

Still, most said they were pleased with the results in the schools they worked with, and most point to increases in the number of candidates at their schools. Most credit Wade’s group as a reliable resource for materials, information and support. And most said that the private funds his group raised helped them recruit more candidates and develop leadership in their neighborhoods.

Election Materials

Thomas was frustrated by the shortage of printed materials. “I had to ask people who weren’t going to run to give me the materials back,” she recalls. “That was embarrassing: ‘Uh, if you’re not gonna use that, can I have it back.’ “

“The election materials in Spanish ran out quick,” says Idida Perez, director of the West Town Leadership Project. “We had to start making copies on our own Xerox machine at the beginning of February. I kept saying, ‘We still have a month; how can you run out of materials now?’ And I got hold of Andy [Wade] and Andy got hold of some, but not a lot.”

Estelle Jarrett flatly disputes that the board ran out of materials. “That’s not correct,” she says. “We’ve always had more than enough nomination forms.” However, she allows that there may have been momentary shortages. “There was a point where we ran out of buttons. There was a point when flyers were not available and we had to reprint. There was a point when we had very few copies [of the nomination form], but they could always be copied out of the Election Guide. And we still have copies of the Guide.”

Not everyone encountered a shortage, but several note that materials didn’t show up as expected at local libraries and parks. “In previous elections, there were a number of places we never had to worry about putting up posters and flyers, like parks and libraries,” says Adeline Ray of the Beverly Area Planning Association on the Far Southwest Side. “We didn’t have that this time. And while we had plenty of materials from the Cooperative and CPS, we had to do double-duty; yeah, we took care of the train stations [as usual], but we also had to do the libraries and the parks.”

“We told people, you can pick up a flyer at a neighborhood public library,” Thomas of Edgewater recalls, “and people came back and told us, ‘They said they’ve never seen ’em.'”

Jarrett says that her office delivered 81 boxes of materials to the library’s main branch, trusting the library system to distribute them from there. “We did get a report that a library or a couple libraries didn’t have them,” she says. “We asked them, ‘Just tell us what library that is, and we’ll be sure to get more materials there.'”

Public Awareness

“I think it really hurt that there wasn’t a lot of public information and PSAs [public-service announcements] about the campaign,” says Susan Adler-Yanun, an education organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “When [LSNA recruiters] went doorknocking and talked to people on the street, people did not know what LSCs were.”

“I know that advertising costs money, but if you don’t advertise, nobody knows you’re there,” says Valencia Reyes, who recruited on the Far South Side and across the city for the advocacy group Designs for Change. “People want to be involved in stuff they see a lot of.”

Jarrett says the board’s spending on media was about the same as in previous years, noting that paid advertising is very expensive. The board did submit PSAs to local TV and radio stations, she says, but had no control over when or how frequently they ran.

Wade and others compared promotion of LSCs to the city’s promotion of Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). “That’s not something that, every couple of years, there’s a campaign for a few weeks,” Wade notes. “It’s part of the visible public life of the city.”

According to Beth Ford, CAPS’s deputy director, CAPS has spent $1 million to $1.5 million on media in each of the last three years, an annual amount almost equal to the combined LSC election budgets of both the School Board and the Cooperative, including the board’s budget for administering the elections. Of $420,000, in private funding, Wade says about $100,000 went to advertising, PR and direct mail. The board’s Jarrett could not immediately say how much of the board’s $1.25 million LSC election budget went for media.

School Cooperation

Several organizers say that cooperation from local schools depended on the principal’s attitude.

Penny Walton of the Grand Boulevard Federation says that she got very different receptions from principals at the various mid-South schools her organization worked with. “I had very good vibes with Beethoven and Terrell and other [schools],” she says. “My recruiter went to Mollison, and the principal told her they didn’t need any help, didn’t need any recruiters.” Walton called the Mollison principal herself but eventually dropped the school from her roster. “We didn’t have time to wait on them.” Another principal was reluctant to work with Walton’s group but came around after Walton gave them the Cooperative’s number as a reference.

“In most cases, schools did exactly what they were supposed to do and nothing more,” says Leo Fontana of the Juan Diego Community Center in South Chicago. He thinks some encouragement from above would have helped. “I would have liked to have seen a little more cooperation, not just from the individual schools, but from the entire entity of CPS.”

Reyes of Designs for Change cites examples of what she calls “sabotage” at individual schools. “I saw and took pictures of signs that said applications were due on the 10th [of March], when you and I both know they were [due on] the 7th. ” We had principals tell us, ‘I’m not recruiting. You never know who you’re recruiting. Last time, the council tried to get rid of me.’ You’re talking about principals trying to protect $90,000-a-year jobs.”

However, she notes that principals at some schools do support LSCs. At one school where she serves on the council, “all I have to do is walk in and say, ‘I need,’ and it’s done,” she says.

James Deanes cautions that community groups and advocates must take care in approaching principals. “You have to work on building relationships,” he says, comparing a recruiter to a guest in the principal’s house. “You have to know how to come into people’s houses, and give people respect. It’s how you do it, and some groups do it much better than others. Just like the Cooperative got calls, we got calls from schools, saying, ‘Who are these groups coming in with these demands? We have work to do.'”

Wade, of the Cooperative, doesn’t disagree. “I think we could’ve done a better job reaching out to principals so that … they didn’t feel threatened by the community groups,” he says. “I think we need to understand that when outside people come into a school, it can feel pretty threatening.”

Filing deadline

Almost to a person, the organizers complained about the nomination deadline. The initial deadline of Feb. 29 was extended to March 7, a month before the elections. In 1998, the final deadline, after a week’s extension, was March 13, three weeks before the elections. One called this year’s deadline “horrible.”

However, most expressed appreciation for the extension. John Castillo, who recruited for the Southwest Organizing Project, reckons he signed up 50 candidates in that final week alone. However, the extended deadline came just one day after a school holiday, which several organizers said was a problem.

Jarrett of School and Community Relations says the deadline wasn’t “that much” earlier and that the total filing period wasn’t shorter, since it opened earlier than in the past. She says her office needs time between the nomination period and the elections to complete a number of tasks, including dealing with ballot challenges.

Ray, the organizer from Beverly, suggests a realistic deadline with no extension. “I had people, a week before the February deadline, ask me, ‘Is the board going to extend it like they do every year?’ “

Ethics obstacle

Several organizers working on the West Side and in Mid-South neighborhoods near the Robert Taylor Homes said that the board’s ethics policy, which prohibits parent and community council members from doing any paid work for their schools, was an obstacle. Several board programs, including Parents as Teachers First, Cradle to Classroom and Parent Patrols, employ parents part time, and many schools employ parents as aides. To serve on the council, a parent must give up such work.

“That was the big turnoff,” says Katherine Raglin of the Chicago Urban League. She says she understands the board’s reasons for having the policy but wishes there were a way to serve on councils without sacrificing income. “These parents are involved with their schools [but] everybody needs a dollar,” she notes. “If there were some way they could work that out, that would really help.”

The board’s Jarrett is sympathetic. “When you make these kinds of choices, you cut down on the pool,” she says.

“In a few cases, parents who wanted to run were offered jobs specifically to keep them from running,” contends Fontana of South Chicago.

However, not all organizers want to see the ethics rules changed. “I really do prefer the setup where you cannot work for the board,” says Ray. Before the ethics policy, she says, some council members felt coerced into voting in line with the principal’s wishes, and in some schools, the practice of hiring LSC members created the appearance that the council was an exclusive, politically connected group.

Money and Assistance

Organizers praised the work that Wade’s group did in putting out information and materials. Without the Cooperative, “there’s no way we would’ve had the material to pass out,” says Ray. “And to me, they’ve always been a real resource for information. I know if they don’t have it, they’ll get it for me right away, and I know I can rely on it to be accurate.” In contrast, she says, information from the board might depend on who happened to answer the phone. “I know I spoke with Estelle Jarrett one time, and she was wonderful,” she says. “I can’t say I’ve always had that experience when I’ve called CPS.”

Wade, the director of the Cooperative, sees some lessons for his own group, including forging more partnerships in certain neighborhoods and earlier planning for some initiatives.

Organizers expressed appreciation for the funding that Wade’s group helped secure. This time, the $250,000 that went to community groups went out in late December, compared to $133,000 distributed for the same purpose in late February, 1998.

“That was a huge help,” says Perez of the West Town Project, who used the money to pay for supplies and to give stipends to community leaders who worked as liaisons to schools. “I mean, Kinko’s alone was a couple thousand dollars. If we didn’t have the money, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

In Logan Square, Adler-Yanun says that the stipends her group paid to local leaders for their efforts may not have raised the number of candidates as much as they raised awareness. LSNA has strong ties to parent leaders in many schools, and they made up the bulk of the group’s recruits, she says, “but people are better informed now, and it sparked some interest, so that was good.”

Relationships

Other organizers noted the importance of established relationships. “I think there’s a tendency to rely on marketing campaigns to recruit candidates, and that’s not the way you recruit someone for an LSC,” says Adam Krugger of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation. “It’s about relationships and conversations—it’s hard for a TV ad to create a relationship.”

“There’s nothing like actually being able to talk to people … and watching the light bulb go [on] in their head,” says Reyes of Designs for Change.

Ray, from Beverly, notes that having long-established relationships with schools allowed her group to craft separate strategies for each one. In one school, sitting council members hosted a “meet-and-greet” for prospective candidates, where they gave a presentation and answered questions about what being on a council was like. “That worked so well,” she says, “but I wouldn’t have tried it at some other schools, where the council members might be more like, ‘Who’s going to run against me?'”

Perez notes a pronounced difference between the work her group was able to do in the six schools where they have worked for years and in three others where they recruited for the first time. “Where we have no relationships, people kept saying, ‘No, no, I have no education,’ or ‘I’m afraid,'” she says. Even talking one-on-one to explain the support and training that are available didn’t always work. “People would sometimes look at me and say, basically, ‘But who are you?’ They didn’t know me.”

Overall, most of the organizers were pleased with the results. Most say that the number of candidates in the schools they worked with went up considerably. However, a Catalyst analysis shows that candidate sign-up was almost exactly the same this year as in 1998 at the schools where these organizations worked. In both elections, the number of candidates per seat at these schools was slightly higher than citywide averages.

Some organizers note that they were more interested in whom they recruited than how many. “We didn’t want to recruit just anyone,” says Krugger of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation.

“There were people we talked to who I might not have given that third or fourth call-back to, because I could tell their heart wasn’t in it,” says Ray of Beverly. “I’m going to have to continue to work with these schools.”