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Chicago 'Superboard' Negotiates Teacher Pact, Pares Budget

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In the weeks since Mayor Richard M. Daley named a "superboard" to run the Chicago public schools, its members have moved quickly on several fronts, negotiating a teacher contrACT and taking drastic steps to restore financial stability.

Last week, the new leadership panel won passage of a budget plan intended to close a $150 million deficit in the district's $2.9 billion budget. This week, schools are expected to open on time, a noteworthy event in a system that has been plagued by budget-related delays.

The "superboard"--a five-member school board and a corporate-style management team--has also launched an assault on waste and corruption and drafted a four-year plan to avert a projected $1.4 billion budget gap.

The moves have won praise from the city's newspapers, educators, and school ACTivists. They have also brought kudos to Mr. Daley and Gov. Jim Edgar, who created the management structure for the 407,000-student district in a state law pushed through last spring.

"The mayor is looking great, and we are happy about that," Allen D. Grosboll, a senior adviser to Gov. Edgar, said last week.

"We see the new board doing what we have advocated the previous boards should have been doing," said G. Alfred Hess, the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, a nonprofit rESEArch and advocacy group.

But, in cutting more than 1,700 jobs from the district's payroll, the new leadership risks alienating some of the powerful labor unions within the Democratic mayor's political base. Moreover, the panel has not yet demonstrated whether it can improve the education offered by the city's 553 public schools.

"You cannot even talk about student achievement, generally, without having the climate for it," Gery J. Chico, the president of the new school board, said last week. He added that the steps taken so far lay the groundwork for the board's efforts to turn around the city's most troubled schools.

District officials have acknowledGED that their budget strategy relies on money they don't have, notably a $600 million bond issue they hope will finance a capital-improvement plan.

'Another Wave of Reforms'

The new Chicago school-reform law represents the state's second attempt in recent years to overhaul the chronically low-performing district. A landmark 1988 state law sought to decentralize the system's governance by creating local school councils--governing boards for individual schools that include parents, teachers, community members, and the principal.

Mr. Grosboll, Gov. Edgar's chief adviser on education policy, said the 1988 law brought some improvement but failed to address some of the district's key problems, notably cutting costs and weeding out bad teachers.

"You still had an assortment of problems that were dragging the school system down," Mr. Grosboll said. "Another wave of reforms was essential."

The new law, signed by the governor in early June, eliminated the office of the superintendent and the existing 15-member school board, replacing them with the new management team and the five-member board.

The law also curtailed the power of the 31,000-member Chicago Teachers Union and gave principals more control over their employees. (See Education Week, June 7, 1995.)

In late June, Mayor Daley named Paul Vallas, the city's budget director, the school system's chief executive officer. Lynn St. James, an education consultant, was named chief education officer, and Ben Reyes, the city's commissioner of general services, became the system's chief operating officer. The mayor also appointed Mr. Chico, who had formerly served as his deputy chief of staff.

The new leadership immediately faced a looming deadline in contract talks with teachers.

The board was determined not to see a repeat of the labor unrest of 1993, when schools shut down twice in September following breakdowns in the bargaining process. But the fact that the recently passed state law had stripped the union of its right to strike and other protections complicated the negotiations.

In a development that surprised many observers, the two sides quickly agreed on a four-year contract that will give union members across-the-board salary increases of at least 3 percent each year. The contract also calls for the school board to restore many of the powers that state lawmakers had taken away.

The union members voted overwhelmingly to ratify the agreement. "We are at last dealing with a school board that truly cares about their employees, the students, the parents, and the community," Thomas H. Reece, the union's president, said in a statement announcing the vote.

Expensive Phone Calls

Even as it made peace with the teachers' union, the new leadership moved to privatize its maintenance and repair services.

Last month, it announced plans to lay off hundreds of carpenters, electricians, and maintenance engineers. By trimming more than 1,700 employees, the board hopes to save about $45 million a year.

Mr. Reyes, the chief operating officer, acknowledged last week that fears of retaliation for the job cuts have led district officials to tighten central-office security.

The district's new four-year spending plan, approved last week along with the fiscal 1996 budget, also calls for consolidating several programs, cutting the special-education staff, and using state compensatory education and teacher-pension funds to help balance the budget.

It also provides funding for alternative schools, after-school programs, and a campaign to recruit volunteer tutors from throughout the city.

"The state legislature didn't give us any new dollars--just new flexibility," Mr. Vallas said in announcing the spending plan.

In its battle against waste, the management team last month found nearly $2 million worth of unused equipment and spoiled cafeteria food languishing in warehouses and determined that the district was spending nearly $2.3 million too much on telecommunications each year.

Noelle Gaffney, Mayor Daley's deputy press secretary, said the board's efforts should send a message to state lawmakers. "Hopefully, the next time we go to Springfield, they will recognize it is a new day at the board of education and be more receptive to giving a fairer share of funding to schools across the state."

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