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Vallas Ousts 3 Administrators at Troubled Chicago School

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Leaders of the Chicago public schools, declaring a city high school to be "in a state of educational crisis," last week removed three administrators and called for new elections to the council that governs the school.

The action by Paul Vallas, the chief executive officer of the system, capped three weeks of controversy over allegations of misconduct at Prosser Vocational Academic Preparation Center.

In moving to address complaints about the school, Mr. Vallas ran into stiff opposition from local advocates of school reform, who accused him of seizing "dictatorial powers" for himself and the system's new board of trustees.

Mr. Vallas defended his actions as "an utter necessity."

Joan Jeter Slay, the associate director of Designs for Change, a leading Chicago reform-advocacy group, said she believed that Mr. Vallas and his administrators were right to take action on the Prosser situation.

She charged, however, that in drawing up new guidelines for defining an educational crisis, the board of trustees had assumed unlimited power that could be used to the detriment of schools that function well.

"Weed out people who are doing wrong, and we'll support you 100 percent," she said, "but don't punish everybody."

Grade Tampering

An investigation by district officials of the allegations at Prosser --including interviews with 75 people connected with the school --concluded that administrators had improperly changed students' grades, ignored allegations of sexual abuse of students, and improperly suspended students.

Prosser's local school council had failed to carry out many of its duties, the probe found, and was plagued by such conflict that several members had stopped attending meetings.

Teachers at the school who went along with the administration were given light schedules and overtime pay, the investigation concluded, while those who bucked it were pulled out of their classrooms and replaced by noncertified people and verbally abused.

Mr. Vallas moved to fire the assistant principal and reassigned the principal to the central office pending future disciplinary action. He said he would recommend that new elections be held for the local school council next month.

The allegations of wrongdoing came to light in a Sept. 14 article in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, in which Mr. Vallas was quoted as calling the school's council "dysfunctional."

The article also said the reporter had obtained documents indicating that grades were changed for the daughter of the president of the school council.

Designs for Change assailed Mr. Vallas for commenting on the investigation and for his derogatory remark about the school council.

The group also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over what it called the illegal disclosure of confidential student records to the news media.

Reformers on Alert

The advocacy group, which played a leading role in writing the legislation that created the councils, has been a strong proponent of Chicago's decentralized school governance and wary of any attempts to revert to central control.

School reformers have been on alert since July, when a new state law gave Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley full authority over the schools by creating an appointed "superboard" and management team.

That law gave the district's chief executive officer broad power to determine when schools are in educational crisis and to take immediate corrective action. (See Education Week, June 21 and July 12, 1995.)

Late last month, after launching the probe at Prosser, the board approved an interim policy that defined what would constitute an educational crisis.

The 16-point plan states that schools are in crisis when they are nonfunctional or the educational process is in jeopardy, or when either situation is imminent.

In addition to more specific criteria, the policy gives the CEO latitude to make judgments about factors that would cause schools to be in crisis.

The policy is set to expire Dec. 31; during the next three months, the board will have public hearings on the measure.

Designs for Change has charged that the guidelines were drawn up in a "sneak attack" and are dangerously vague.

The group also criticized the guidelines as being focused on administrative and budgetary practices rather than student achievement.

"We feel that when you have unlimited power, you should wield it carefully and criteria should be very narrowly focused," Ms. Slay said.

Gery Chico, the president of the board of trustees, defended the guidelines, saying in a statement that board's objective was to ensure proper learning environments.

"If something gets in the way of efforts to teach the children of Chicago, we're going to address it immediately within the parameters of state law," he said.

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