School ‘crisis’ policy sparks debate

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“We didn’t want a situation in which a school is clearly being mismanaged but the board could do nothing about it.”

That’s how Allen Grosboll, special assistant to Gov. Jim Edgar, explains the Legislature’s decision to give the School Reform Board of Trustees the power to intervene swiftly in dysfunctional schools.

While conceding “some concern” about the speed with which the board adopted a policy on schools in “educational crisis,” Grosboll argues that “ultimately, somebody must have the power to intervene.”

Previous boards complained to lawmakers that they couldn’t take charge of seriously mismanaged schools because of legal hurdles, Grosboll says. Now, he adds, “There shouldn’t be any excuses. Don’t ever tell us you don’t have the power to step in and do what’s right.”

However, school reform advocates contend the Reform Board has assumed too much power. (See letter.) They also say the school community should have been consulted before the policy was adopted. Their criticism prompted Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas to put a Dec. 31 sunset date on the policy and hold hearings to see if it should be amended. (The final hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at Chicago Vocational High School, 2100 E. 87th.)

“We’ve gotten some good input” at the hearings so far, says Chief Educational Officer Lynn St. James. “I’m sure we’ll be able to accommodate peoples’ concerns.”

Prosser Vocational was the first target for action. Following a newspaper expose of alleged grade-fixing, failure to report suspected child abuse, and other wrongdoing, the Office of Accountability interviewed 75 Prosser staff members and met with parents and teachers to discuss the situation.

As the formal investigation began, however, school reform advocates heatedly pointed out that state law required the Board to first adopt criteria for determining that a school is in “educational crisis.” The board quickly did that, and, a week later, rid Prosser of its principal, assistant principal and local school council.

The accountability office is now investigating Avalon Park and Revere elementary schools, says Chief Accountability Officer Patricia Harvey. Both schools have “had problems for a while,” she says, declining to elaborate. A decision on whether to intervene could come within a few weeks.

The Chicago Teachers Union applauds the policy. “It’s not something the board thought up just to make things hard for councils,” says spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. “We’re certainly not on the side of the [reform] groups in this case.” At Prosser, she reports, teachers had filed at least 20 to 25 grievances against the administrators who were removed.

Power can be abused, Gallagher says, “But in this case, power is in the right hands.”

Following are the 16 criteria:

1. Principal fails to develop or implement a school improvement plan.

2. Local school council fails or refuses to approve, without reasonable justification, the school improvement plan.

3. Principal or local school council or staff fail or refuse to comply with the school improvement plan to the detriment of the school.

4. Principal, local school council or local school council member(s) are unable to resolve disputes and structure programs conducive to learning.

5. Principal is unable to develop an effective working relationship with teachers, staff and/or the local school council.

6. Principal fails or refuses to develop a reasonable expenditure plan which supports and is compatible with the school improvement plan and is in accord with all applicable laws, rules and policies.

7. Principal fails to properly spend all school funds, including the budgeted, discretionary and internal account funds.

8. Principal fails or refuses to keep accurate internal account records.

9. Principal fails or refuses to maintain proper records and reports.

10. Principal fails or refuses to complete all documentation and paperwork necessary for the opening and closing of school.

11. Principal fails to provide a safe building for students and staff.

12. Principal, local school council or local school council member(s) improperly uses personnel or school programs, including but not limited to the abuse of disciplinary actions against school personnel or students, the improper rescheduling of school personnel or the improper closing of school staff positions or programs.

13. Local school council is non-functional and/or deadlocked on key issues affecting the educational process of the school. A non-functional local school council may be defined as but its definition is not limited to: the failure to fill the necessary vacancies; the failure to maintain a quorum by the refusal of council members to remain in attendance for the duration of local school council meetings; or the failure to achieve a quorum because members fail to attend four or more regular meetings.

14. Principal, local school council, local school council member(s) or staff fails or refuses to cooperate or comply with the remediation, probation, intervention or reconstitution process.

15. Principal, local school council or local school council member(s) fails or refuses to comply with the provisions of the Illinois School Code, all other applicable laws, collective bargaining agreements, court orders or board rules or policies.

16. Other factors which in the chief executive officer’s judgment cause the school to meet the definition of educational crisis.

The policy states that “one or more of these criteria does not mean that an educational crisis exists . . . an educational crisis may be declared only when the school is either (1) non-functional or in imminent danger of becoming non-functional or (2) the education process at the school is seriously impaired or in imminent danger of becoming seriously impaired.”

Contributing: Michael Hawthorne