Law, policy changes dilute LSC power

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The Chicago School Reform Act, passed in 1988, created local school councils and gave them significant powers, including choosing principals and approving school improvement plans and budgets. In the last two years, new laws and policies have restricted the major powers and expanded some of the lesser ones. Here’s a rundown.

PRINCIPAL SELECTION The Reform Act gave LSCs unfettered power to select principals and prohibited the Board of Education from imposing candidate requirements beyond a state principal certificate.

In 1996, the Legislature quietly removed the prohibition at the request of Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. The School Reform Board (the new name for the Board of Education) then imposed a number of requirements on principal candidates, including Chicago residency, administrative experience, an unpaid internship and increased college course work. The 1996 law also gave the school system’s CEO veto power over an LSC’s decision to renew its principal’s contract; the board serves as a court of appeal.

BUDGET APPROVAL The Reform Act gave LSCs the power to help shape and to approve their schools’ budgets.

In 1995, the Legislature gave LSCs additional budgetary powers. These included approving receipts and expenditures for schools’ internal accounts; voting on requests for the use of school facilities for lectures, concerts and the like; and approving fundraising by non-school organizations that use the building.

The Legislature also required principals to give LSCs copies of internal-account audits and other pertinent information.

A bill awaiting Gov. Jim Edgar’s signature gives the CEO authority to intervene when he judges that an LSC is “not carrying out its financial duties effectively.” In such cases, he may appoint an advisor from the business sector, whose purpose would be “providing advice and assistance to the local school council on fiscal matters.” The advisor would have access to the LSC’s financial records and be able sit in on executive sessions.

TRAINING The Reform Act strongly suggested but did not require that new LSC members complete an eight-hour training session prior to taking office.

In 1995, the Legislature mandated three full days of training for new LSC members, to be completed within 6 months of taking office. Training must cover specific topics, including legal issues and methods of raising student achievement. The School Board was required to remove members who fail to participate. (See story in Catalyst, June 1997.)

STATE CHAPTER 1 The Reform Act allowed LSCs and principals to spend state Chapter 1 funds at their discretion in a number of specified educational areas or for other “educationally beneficial expenditures which supplement the regular and basic programs.”

In 1995, the Legislature put a limit on the amount of state Chapter 1 money that the board is required to distribute to schools, $261 million. (This school year, the system is expected to receive some $318 million, so the board gets to decide how to spend $57 million.) Also in 1995, the Reform Board adopted a number of procedural requirements and restrictions for school spending of Chapter 1 dollars; they dealt with travel, the use of consultants, parent and student stipends, and summer school programs.

ACCOUNTABILITY The Reform Act stated that the subdistrict superintendent (later, the CEO), could dissolve an LSC and order new elections after a school had been on academic probation for one year without making adequate progress. The LSC must be given a chance for a hearing, and the School Board must approve the dissolution.

In 1995, the Legislature made it possible for the CEO to act before a full year of probation had passed. It also gave the CEO other opportunities to remove local school councils. If the CEO deems a school to be in “educational crisis,” he can take “immediate corrective action,” including removing the LSC. If the School Board determines that a chronically underperforming school should be placed on “intervention,” the CEO can remove the LSC. In such cases, the CEO takes over the LSC’s responsibilities until the new members are elected. In both cases, hearings must be offered, and the School Board must concur in the action.

Under board policy, LSCs at probation schools have less control over their schools’ direction. Assessment teams sent by central office must approve corrective action plans. Probation managers sent by central office monitor implementation.

Interpretations differ on a related issue: the right of an LSC at a probation school to craft and approve the school’s budget.

Zarina Suarez O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, contends the board has gone beyond the law, which provides that a probation school’s School Improvement Plan may “specify external technical assistance that will be provided to the school.” Instead, she says, the board’s assessment teams have taken charge of all school expenditures, telling LSCs they no longer have the right to approve school budgets.