Spending restrictions rile advocates, but win some school support

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When it issued proposed guidelines on schools’ use of state Chapter 1 money, the administration found itself at odds with school reform advocates. But it got some support from schools themselves.

Reform advocates cite two concerns. For one, the guidelines, which include a mix of spending restrictions and documentation requirements, were assembled quickly without public discussion about the problems they were designed to address.

“It would have been a lot easier to deal with the issue if they had come to us and said, we think we need to have something on state Chapter 1,” says Sheila Castillo, coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils.

Second, reformers object to central office putting itself in the position of deciding, even in limited areas, how schools should or should not use their own discretionary dollars.

“The problem in doing something like this is that I’m sure you can go out to some school some place and see funds used in what may be deemed inappropriate ways, and then go to 10 other schools and see money being spent on the same things in a very effective way,” says Tony Bryk, director of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago, and of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

“For instance, some may see schools using Chapter 1 funds for hiring parents for school services as patronage. But in many cases, we have found this to be a good way to get a large number of services performed, as well as connect the schools to the community.”

With 553 schools, Bryk says, the board won’t have any problem finding examples of misspent funds. What the board must decide, he says, is whether the problems are endemic or occur in only a few schools. If they occur in only a few schools, he says, the board can do the most good for the most schools by leaving the authority for Chapter 1 spending in the hands of LSCs.

“The whole purpose of giving Chapter 1 money to the LSCs is because they are the best parties to know how to spend that money,” maintains Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers School Reform Advisory Project. “This is the point of school reform—to give power to the schools.”

Leonard Dominguez, the administration’s policy chief, counters, “I don’t think it will affect the power of LSCs at all. I think most people are very pleased because this will help them avoid confusion when deciding what is an appropriate use of the funds.

“For instance, recently a principal called me because she wanted to know if she could use funds to serve teachers a catered meal for a meeting she was holding on the first day of school. I told her not to, because people would look askance at that. These funds are earmarked for poor children, not teachers’ meals.” (The guidelines do not ban spending on meals, though.)

Helping principals

Tomas Revollo, principal of Waters Elementary School, welcomes guidelines: “Any time schools are given funding for which they are responsible, there should be central guidelines.” He adds that the administration “went out of its way” in gathering opinions from principals.

Philip Yaccino, principal of Mozart Elementary School, says he hasn’t seen the guidelines but adds, “There have always been restrictions. . . . The board’s intent is good. They want [principals] to do their job better, not take something away from them.”

Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, agrees there should be “parameters.” But she believes the administration has more in mind than avoiding confusion. “They are looking for a legal way that they can find the principals or people on the councils who are not making good judgments and dismiss or penalize them,” she says. “People are getting nervous because there is a strong move afoot to identify schools and principals who are not following rules.”

Retreats ‘good use of money’

The Reform Board is under heavy pressure from the state to get local school councils to start showing that reform is working, Tunney says. And a recent spate of page 1 articles in the Chicago Sun-Times turned up the heat, she adds. The articles targeted a number of schools that spent money in ways that the newspaper deemed scandalous.

Adds Tunney: “The real question to ask here is: Why is it that when these plans are approved by the board, no one there is taking the fall?”

Of the proposed restrictions, the ban on overnight retreats, which was the focus of one Sun-Times spread, seems to have stirred the most opposition.

Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, calls the proposal “media pandering that is just simply ludicrous.” The new board is using the media to help build a consensus for governing the school system, he says. “And when you start to manipulate the media, you open yourself to manipulation by the media.”

On the issue itself, O’Hagin says, “Retreats are valuable in terms of restoring morale and for brainstorming. There are times when it’s very difficult to look beyond the day-to-day minutia of running a school. Overnight retreats give teachers and administrators an opportunity to get some distance and some focus on where they want their school to be. That is an extremely good use of time and money.”

Jacqueline Simmons, the longtime principal of Robeson High who recently became a deputy in the Office of Professional Development, says that the school’s retreats at Nordic Hills Resort and Conference Center in the western suburbs brought together teachers, parents, community members and even students to plan for school improvement.

“You have to spend time sharpening the ax, so that you can cut down the trees,” she says of such spending.

Castillo questions why the administration has not researched whether overnight retreats are worthwhile. “In the Sun-Times, they interviewed a teacher who said she returned from her school’s retreat refreshed and enthusiastic with the new ideas she planned to use to improve her class. Now, isn’t that the point?”

“Isn’t it amazing that the very next day after the story [about retreats] ran in the paper, the board had the ‘brand-new’ proposal for the state Chapter 1 guidelines all ready to go?” says Castillo, with mock incredulity. “It’s like they wanted the hearing to take place in the media, rather than in a rational way. What is the big rush?”

Castillo’s group has recommended that instead of banning overnight retreats, the board, with the help of LSC members, prepare a guide to assist schools in planning high-quality retreats. It also should negotiate reduced rates from local hotels or other sources, the group says.

Asked for the rationale for various items in the guidelines, Dominguez said only that they weren’t “written in stone” and likely would be changed. One set of hearings was to have been held Oct. 27 at regional offices; another set is scheduled for 6 p.m. Nov. 7, also at regional offices.

Legal or not?

O’Hagin contends that the board lacks legal grounds for imposing any guidelines. “It’s none of their business,” she says. “On what basis at all does the board have the right to impose additional guidelines? According to the law—none. It blows me away that they are trying to do this.”

Hess, who drafted the Chapter 1 section of the Reform Act, agrees. “Schools can spend that money any way they want to improve student achievement. The proof of the pudding is in whether student achievement improves.”

Under state law, schools may spend state Chapter 1 money on supplemental programs in six areas: early childhood, enrichment, attendance, remedial assistance, reduced class size or improved adult-to-student ratios, and “other educationally beneficial expenditures.”

Hess says that even the proposed limits on pay for tutors, parents and the like are out of bonds. “These are useful if they are couched as recommendations to LSCs, but it exceeds their authority to impose them as restrictions.” And, he asks, “What do you do if you can’t get a college student to come to your neighborhood for the rate you have to pay?”

But Tanya Patton, who oversees state Chapter 1 spending statewide for the Illinois State Board of Education, says that the Chicago board does have the authority to restrict schools’ use of state Chapter 1 money.

In a written response to a Catalyst question, she said: “The Chicago Board has the authority to establish policy for the Chicago Public Schools, subject to any statutory provisions. A policy of capping stipends or not allowing overnight travel expenses is within the authority of the Chicago Board.”

The state audits state Chapter 1 spending, but Patton sidestepped a question about whether the state has any concern about it.

Felicia Morton is a Chicago writer.