LSC member ‘cautiously optimistic’ that Advisory Board won’t be rubber stamp

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The April Catalyst report on the Local School Council Advisory Board properly raises the question of whether this body will stand on its own feet and speak out, or merely be a rubber stamp. As a watchful LSC member, I’ve asked myself that question as I observed the Advisory Board’s first three meetings. I still am deeply concerned but also cautiously optimistic.

Why my concern? First, the Reform Board of Trustees ignored the Interim LSC Advisory Committee’s recommendations and appointed nine members while allowing just six to be elected by school councils. Second, the Reform Board, appointed by the mayor, chose a former mayoral election aide, Tom Gray, as the LSC Advisory Board’s chairman. Gray had served as chairman of the Interim Advisory Committee, where he candidly introduced himself as a staffer for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s earlier election campaign. Gray currently draws a paycheck in the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.

Minutes ‘unnecessary’

So, I watched with heightened interest as Chairman Gray declared at the Advisory Board’s first meeting that keeping minutes would be “unnecessary.” From the audience, Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, noted that the Illinois Open Meetings Act requires minutes. So minutes were duly taken.

As the meeting progressed, another member asked whether the Advisory Board could independently raise issues of importance to local school councils. Chairman Gray answered flatly, “We’ll get the issues handed down to us.” Gray added later, “You’re only voting on something if you’re asked to by the Board of Trustees.”

As it turned out, however, the mayoral staffer was wrong. Operational guidelines subsequently adopted by the Advisory Board made clear that it is allowed to speak out on its own—no prior permission from school bosses required.

At the second Advisory Board meeting, Gray said, “We need no quorum because we’re not a policy body.” CPS Policy Director Leonard Dominguez, himself a one-time mayoral staffer, supported Gray’s view. The Advisory Board, however, voted that a quorum of eight shall be required for any vote.

Later in that meeting, Gray referred to Dominguez, who was seated at his left and sometimes whispered in his ear, as “my adviser.” Of course, I had hoped that advice would flow from LSCs up to the ears of the mayor’s team at Pershing Road—not the reverse. Also, I was disturbed to observe that central office officials were allowed to speak up throughout Advisory Board meetings while LSC members in the audience were required to be silent.

Nonetheless, I’m cautiously hopeful that the Advisory Board will not be a mere rubber stamp. Some members, indeed, are speaking out on behalf of the school councils they were empanelled to represent.

For example, Alys Lavicka—a parent who was elected, not appointed, to the panel—successfully argued that the Board of Trustees should be urged to drop a proposed ethics policy provision barring an LSC member from voting on the entire school budget if any relative is employed at their school. The trustees subsequently honored this recommendation.

At the Advisory Board’s third meeting, Lavicka spoke out against proposed revisions to the uniform principal contract, on which central office had sought input. The proposal would, for example, make an LSC’s rehiring of its principal contingent on a satisfactory principal evaluation from Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. Lavicka correctly noted that principal hiring, by law, is one of the major powers held by individual school councils. Norberto Paredes, another elected member, echoed Lavicka, warning, “This Board of Trustees is trying to tie our hands.”

Happily, the Advisory Board declined to deliver a recommendation on the contract at that meeting, pointing out that only a handful of minutes had been allotted to digest the complex document, which board lawyers had just distributed.

If in the future more Advisory Board members continue to speak out, consider the issues carefully and seek out and heed the views of their constituents, then grass-roots LSC members like myself might be able to view this board as an ally, not a rubber stamp.

Chuck Shubart, community representative

Field Elementary School LSC