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Turnout for Local Council Voting in Chicago Up

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More Chicagoans voted in the April balloting for local school councils than in the previous two elections, elated district officials reported last week.

A total of 122,042 parents, community members, and school employees cast ballots in the elections to determine the makeup of the 10-member panels that govern 539 schools.

Turnout had declined steadily since 1989, the first year such elections were held. In 1993, 74,680 voters turned out; in 1991, 108,832 people voted.

This year, 7,977 candidates ran for 4,424 seats on the councils, which are made up of six parents, two community members, and two teachers. The councils hire and fire principals--who also sit on the panels--and draw up school-improvement plans and budgets.

"You can't argue with numbers," Paul Vallas, the chief executive officer of the school system, said last week. "We have turned the tide."

The elections were the city's first since appointees of Mayor Richard M. Daley assumed control of the 413,000-student system last summer. Some school-reform advocates had worried that the new administration's emphasis on accountability could diminish interest in serving on the councils. (See Education Week, April 10, 1996.)

Designs for Change, a prominent Chicago research and advocacy group that played a major role in writing the 1988 state law that created the councils, was particularly critical of the district's commitment in the weeks before the election. As the candidate-registration period closed in late March, the group faulted Mayor Daley for what it called "neglect" and "bungling" of the candidate search. The final tally fell short of the mayor's goal of recruiting 10,000 candidates.

Mr. Vallas said he was pleased that about 500 more candidates registered than in 1993. He said the attacks were an attempt by Designs for Change to justify the group's existence.

"They're bloodsucking the system," he charged in a recent interview. "They do not want a central office that is responsible, because that eliminates their reason for being. They're only interested in perpetuating the status quo."

Joan Jeter Slay, the associate director of Designs for Change, said the group's criticisms were not directed at Mr. Vallas personally.

"He does not respond with facts," she said. "He says nasty things about us. But good people can differ about what is being done."

Building Interest

The schools chief said that, far from discouraging people from participating in the elections, his intervention in troubled schools boosted interest.

Candidate registration and voter turnout were particularly high at schools that have been the focus of controversy. At Hale Elementary School, where the Chicago board of trustees recently suspended the local school council, 24 people ran for seats and 1,039 people cast ballots.

At Prosser High School, where the council was dissolved last fall after the school was declared to be in a state of crisis, 605 people voted, compared with 248 in 1993.

At both schools, council members who had been accused of wrongdoing were defeated.

"People want accountability. They demand our intervention," Mr. Vallas said.

Lafayette Ford, the acting director of the Citywide Coalition for School Reform and a member of a high school LSC, said the board of education's effort this year to promote the elections was "far superior to all the other efforts combined."

Mr. Ford noted that reform advocates had unsuccessfully pushed the new administration to begin planning for the election six months in advance.

"The concern always has been and will be that the effort got under way at a very late date," he said. "But there is no question that there was a heavy, hands-on, top-down approach in making sure that the entire employee staff was involved in the elections."

Turnout also was helped by the fact that the LSC elections were held on the same days that parents visited schools to pick up their children's report cards. The switch was made in 1994 legislation to encourage voter participation.

For the first time, the voting was conducted using general-election procedures, including punch cards, that officials said would help familiarize people who may not have voted before with the voting process. Chicagoans were not required to be registered voters to participate in the LSC elections.

"The community responded to our mobilization effort," said Carlos Azcoitia, the district's director of school and community relations. "They want to be part of improving the schools."

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