One Saturday morning in early February, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas told a standing-room only crowd of local school council members, many of them critics: “Anyone who says we are against LSCs is a liar.”
Despite this assertion and the almost five hours he spent answering questions—first in the forum organized by the CityWide Coalition for School Reform and then informally—many remain skeptical.
At the LSC “summit” that afternoon, Sheila Castillo, coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, told some 250 school reformers that they must proceed with caution. CALSC organized the event, held at Roosevelt University, in cooperation with the CityWide Coalition, Parents United For Responsible Education, the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project and Schools First.
“Things have been going on that don’t add up with what Mr. Vallas is saying,” Castillo said. “Some people may think this is a grand conspiracy to abolish LSCs. Today Mr. Vallas said this is untrue. He said his goal is to get test scores up. Our goal is to see that children get the best education possible. If the education is good, test scores will go up. If not, perhaps we need different tests. I don’t know.”
The groups called the summit to join forces behind the authority of LSCs to decide what is best for their particular schools.
“Originally, the idea for this summit surfaced as an offer we made to Vallas to work together to find areas where the LSCs had conflicts and figure out how they should solve them,” Castillo later explained. “The response from the administration was not overly positive. But we knew there were problems, and we knew that the LSCs had to come up with ways to nip these problems in the bud, before invoking the crisis policy.
“There’s a big chunk missing in school reform policy about what to do when a problem starts,” she added.
LSC members divided into smaller groups to brainstorm solutions for what they consider the problems of top-down management, inadequate student assessment, disrespect for council members, and the like. All the while, Vallas stood outside the meeting room, answering questions from activists who had attended the morning forum. Nearby, LSC members consulted with volunteer lawyers about how to handle problems. The summit participants were to reconvene March 2 at Roosevelt University to draft proposals to the School Board.
In the morning forum, Vallas reported plans to publicize the upcoming LSC elections: The governor, the mayor and the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been solicited for public service announcements; ministers and union leaders were being asked to encourage their followers to participate; two candidate training sessions had been scheduled; and the school system’s “phone bank” would be programmed to remind parents of key dates.
At one point during the lengthy question-and-answer session, Vallas ignited a shouting match with Bill and John Bartgen, brothers who served on the Hale School LSC, which Vallas recently disbanded. Initially, Vallas had told community members that if they didn’t like the LSC, they should vote it out of office. But he took action when the LSC ran a newspaper ad implying the school’s principal could have prevented the death of two girls who were caught in gang crossfire near the school.
His face reddening, Vallas shouted, “You’re a disgrace to the LSCs. … You do not divide a community over a tragedy like that.” The ad was “the truth, the truth,” Bill Bartgen countered. As the exchange continued, Lafayette Ford and Rev. Lewis Flowers casually walked between the verbal combatants as if expecting them to come to blows.