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LSC Elections in Chicago Test Local Control

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Next week's elections for seats on Chicago's local school councils come at a pivotal time for the city's groundbreaking model of school governance.

Nine months after Mayor Richard M. Daley assumed control of the 413,000-student district, the elections are viewed by many as a test of local control in the face of an aggressive, high-profile administration.

Supporters of the councils charge that the system's new leadership team neglected to vigorously promote the elections and drum up candidates.

School leaders had hoped to recruit 10,000 candidates to insure contested elections for the 4,424 seats to be filled during the April 17-18 voting. But only 7,977 people had filed to run by the March 29 deadline.

This month marks the city's fourth election under the 1988 state law that overhauled the governance of the Chicago schools. Candidate interest, voter turnout, and financial support have declined steadily since 1989, when more than 17,000 Chicagoans ran for seats on the councils.

This year, council supporters say, potential candidates are particularly reluctant to serve because the new district leaders have ignored the panels' achievements and magnified their mistakes.

Meanwhile, Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, repeatedly makes headlines with his overhaul of the system.

"The perception out in the city now is that school reform is lodged in the central office and that the central office is cleaning up the local schools," said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a local advocacy group. "We have to fight even for the concept of LSCs, which has been accepted as the norm in Chicago."

Mr. Vallas, announcing last week what he said would be an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign, said the councils are "at the very heart of school reform."

"They have a critical role in shaping what must again become one of America's great urban school systems," he said.

Rallying Troops

The councils--made up of six parents, two community members, and two teachers--govern 539 schools.

They hire and fire principals, who also sit on the councils, and prepare school budgets and improvement plans. Parents and community members are elected by the public, while teachers are chosen by their peers.

Advocates for the councils had hoped that the politically savvy new administration would use its influence to talk up the councils and make the filing period for candidates a headline event. That never happened, they say.

Chicago foundations, however, chipped in about $250,000 to help local citizens' groups generate candidates and encourage people to vote.

Members of Designs for Change, a leading Chicago research and advocacy group, sponsored forums and rallies, sent information home with students, knocked on doors, and attended LSC meetings to stir up interest in the elections, said Joan Jeter Slay, the group's associate director.

"We did it the old way," she said. "You've got to have troops."

Carlos Azcoitia, the director of the district's office of school and community relations, rejected the assertion that the administration dropped the ball on recruitment. The office has been working since January, he said, to publicize the elections, make up nomination forms, and produce posters and brochures in six languages.

To promote the elections, Gery Chico, the president of the school reform board of trustees, dished out Ben & Jerry's ice cream at Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy, a K-8 school on the city's South Side. The company's "Scoops for Schools" campaign will throw ice-cream parties for the six schools that attract the most voters.

Chicagoans should not assume that the new administration does not support LSCs, Mr. Azcoitia added, just because district officials have taken action against a handful of councils.

"School reform goes hand in hand with accountability," he said. "You have to have the power to make decisions and be held responsible for those actions."

Patronage and Politics

Despite attempts to send an upbeat message about the local school councils, their public image has suffered a few setbacks since Mayor Daley tapped Mr. Vallas, the former Chicago budget director, to run the district.

The schools chief and his top aides have publicly clashed with several school councils. And Mr. Vallas repeatedly has stated that some council members are more interested in patronage and nepotism than in education.

"Local control adds to the process, but everyone has to be held accountable," he said in a January interview. "Patronage and politically entrenched LSCs are the price you pay for local control. They key is to root it out and insure that they are focused on their mission."

In trying to deal with wayward LSCs, Mr. Vallas has run afoul of reform groups that zealously protect the councils' power and autonomy. They argue that council members should receive due process when accused of wrongdoing.

Since last fall, the administration has tangled with several school councils:

  • In October, Mr. Vallas and the board of trustees declared Prosser High School to be in a state of crisis and dissolved its council after investigating charges of grade-fixing, teacher intimidation, and misspent funds. The decision provoked an uproar among reform groups. They quarreled with the board's criteria for placing a school in crisis and asserted that the entire Prosser council should not be punished for the actions of a few members. The criteria were later amended.
  • In January, a member of the Lewis Elementary School council wore a secret microphone to help catch an interim principal and assistant principal offering $3,400 in bribes to council members to win their approval of a permanent contract for the principal. Both men were charged with bribery and misconduct.
  • Although it was an LSC member who exposed the corruption, the apparent job-buying scheme was seen as another blow to the councils' image. In late March, the board of trustees suspended for 90 days the powers of the school council at Hale Elementary School, which was dominated by a Chicago firefighter and his relatives.

After months of investigations, council members were accused of disrupting the educational process by entering classrooms, making improper demands on the staff, failing to carry out their legal responsibilities, and usurping the role of the principal.

Defenders of the LSCs fear that the administration's new emphasis on accountability, backed by an aggressive office of investigations, has painted a negative picture of local school governance.

"The small number of problems that have arisen have gotten an incredible amount of play in the media," said Sheila Castillo, the executive director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. "Councils are feeling marginalized."

Strict Requirements

State lawmakers have attempted to give council members the tools they need to do their jobs. Under the 1995 law that gave Mayor Daley control of the school system, LSC members are required to undergo three days of training provided by the University of Illinois at Chicago. They also are subject to a code of ethics and financial-disclosure rules.

But some advocates say the strict requirements show a lack of trust in the parents and community members who serve on the councils. They worry that the training and disclosure rules could discourage people from participating.

One potential barrier to council service was removed last month, when the Illinois board of education granted a waiver requested by the Chicago district to allow council members to serve for two years, rather than four. The longer term was seen as onerous for people with jobs, families, and other responsibilities.

Despite the attention to the problems of a handful of LSCs, they are not the only part of the system to feel the heat. Mr. Vallas also has removed a number of principals from poorly performing schools.

Seeking Balance

The district is trying to find the right balance between top-down and bottom-up authority, observed Larry A. Braskamp, the dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"There has to be accountability, which Vallas is addressing," he said. "But there also has to be a lot of local autonomy, and sometimes you fail."

The administration is working to create a financial-management system that will give schools greater control over actual spending--something previous district leaders did not pursue for schools, noted G. Alfred Hess Jr., the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy.

In moving swiftly to handle turmoil at some schools, though, Mr. Vallas risks stamping out productive conflict that can lead to improvement, Mr. Hess said.

"Our studies show that conflict is a precursor to changing leadership," he said. "If you put it down prematurely, what you can end up doing is leaving in place an inappropriate leader."

Mr. Vallas also stepped on toes in February with the release of a lengthy education plan that some Chicagoans viewed as trampling on the duties of the LSCs by calling for a core curriculum for schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1996.)

The schools chief and Lynn St. James, the district's chief education officer, later that month sent principals a letter directing them to set aside money to pay for one part of the plan--summer programs for students who are achieving below their grade level.

Members of the LSCs were not sent copies of the letter, even though they develop the schools' budgets.

The Chicago reform-advocacy community has been relatively quiet about the broad education plan, but Ms. Slay of Designs for Change said a coordinated response is in the works.

"People aren't ready to give up on LSCs," she said. "They just aren't."

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