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'Finally and Firmly,' State Judge Upholds Chicago School Law

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A legal challenge to the landmark Chicago school-reform law was turned back last week when a state judge ruled against principals and administrators who were seeking to block its implementation.

"Finally and firmly this court declares that the school-reform act is constitutional," wrote Circuit Court Judge Robert L. Sklodowski in a summary judgment dismissing the challenge.

The ruling was hailed as a major victory by supporters of the law, which grants unprecedented control over individual schools to local councils with parent majorities.

If the judge had ruled for the plaintiffs, "it would have struck right at the heart of the law," said Donald R. Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, an advocacy group that played a major role in crafting the law and securing its passage in the state legislature.

In their lawsuit, the administrators had challenged the makeup of the local school councils on grounds that they did not fairly represent the city's taxpayers.

But Judge Sklodowski ruled that the councils "are special, limitedpurpose bodies" that are constitutionally permissible under "the legislature's mandate to improve the quality of education in the city of Chicago."

A second major point of contention was the law's elimination of lifetime tenure for principals, who in the future will be bound by four-year contracts with the local school councils and may not be rehired if they fail to reach the performance goals in their contracts.

"The Illinois legislature," Judge Sklodowski ruled, "has changed the terms of the principal plaintiff's employment as a necessary and appropriate enactment of its duty to provide quality education in the Chicago school system."

"It is clear, as the voluminous exhibits to this court underline, that the Chicago school system is in chaos and does not properly educate its students," he wrote in the six-page opinion.

"As a judge I face a choice: Shall I be an activist and substitute the opinions and arguments urged upon me by the plaintiffs for that of the deliberative body of the people?"

Bruce Berndt, president of the Chicago Principals Association, said the suit has been refiled in federal court, "to get a response to the legal issues, rather than to political pressures."

Meanwhile, the seven-member interim board of education created by the new law has taken several major actions since assuming office July 1. Among other decisions, it has:

Named Charles D. Almo to the post of interim general superintendent after negotiating a separation agreement with Manford Byrd, the previous school chief. Mr. Almo has held several posts in the Chicago system, most recently that of assistant superintendent in charge of personnel.

Adopted a budget for the 1989-90 school year that cuts 456 positions from central and district offices and creates some 1,870 teaching and other school-based positions. School officials say the budget meets the reform law's target of cutting $40 million from the central administration. The Chicago School Finance Authority, which is charged with overseeing the reform process, has not yet approved the plan.

Approved a new administrative organization that reduces the number of subdistricts in the system from 23 to 11, slashes the number of top-level administrative positions from 58 to 36, and consolidates several units in the school system.

Adopted an initial systemwide school-improvement plan, with 44 specific goals for improving pupil performance and implementing the reform law. The finance authority must also approve the plan.

Negotiated a new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union without a walkout, a task that the previous board had not been able to accomplish in the past 20 years. The one-year contract contains changes mandated by the new law, including the elimination of transfer rights4based on teacher seniority and a reduction--from one year to 45 days--in the minimum remediation period for teachers experiencing difficulties in the classroom.

The $78-million contract raises new teachers' starting salaries by more than 12 percent. Over all, teachers will receive a 5.4 percent pay increase. The contract also guarantees that tenured teachers whose positions have been eliminated will have a chance to interview for other jobs, and requires the school district to find or create a position, if necessary.

Under the contract, elementary class sizes will be reduced by one pupil, to a maximum of 28 children per class in grades K-3, and music and art classes will be restored in elementary schools.

The teachers' union and interim board were expected this week to begin negotiations on a new, three-year contract. The board is also currently working to establish procedures for the school-council elections, which are scheduled for Oct. 11 and 12.

Staff Writer Ann Bradley contributed to this report.

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