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Published in Print: March 15, 2000, as Elections for Chicago's School Councils Draw 7,200 Candidates

Elections for Chicago's School Councils Draw 7,200 Candidates

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More than 7,200 people have applied to run for the roughly 5,700 seats on the local school councils that govern Chicago's public schools, after the deadline was extended two weeks because fewer than 4,000 candidates initially entered the race.

The councils, created in 1988 by the Illinois legislature as part of a broad overhaul of education in the nation's third-largest school district, have the power to hire and fire their schools' principals and the authority to use a portion of the schools' budgets on what they believe is important. Each council consists of six parents, two teachers, two community members, and, in high schools, one student.

Interest in the elections, held every four years, has remained steady for the past few years, but never has drawn the kind of interest the original campaign did, when nearly 17,000 people ran for seats in 1989.

And while there has been concern about potential declining interest in the panels, officials said last week they were pleased that the number of candidates roughly equals that of the last election in 1998.

"While we would have liked more of an increase, we've gotten a lot more publicly visible," said Andy Wade, the executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative, a group paid by foundations to help publicize the council elections and recruit candidates.

This year's number of candidates is a few dozen larger than in 1998 elections, but only about half the parent and community-member seats on the councils are contested. "There always needs to be more running," Mr. Wade said, but he said he was happy with the turnout. "Chicago sets the highest bar for community involvement in the country. I feel pretty good about this right now."

A 'Potent Force'

Over the years, the councils have won praise for bringing community involvement back into schools, but have also run into their share of problems, including some widely publicized instances of financial mismanagement.

And at times, the LSCs have run afoul of Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer appointed to run the 430,000-student district in 1995 after the state legislature gave broad control over the schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley. At times, Mr. Vallas has quarreled with councils over the choice of principals, and some observers have speculated that he has sought to limit their authority.

But bills that would reduce the councils' powers have repeatedly failed in the legislature, leaving Mr. Vallas little choice but to work with them.

"Given a more focused direction ... the councils have a great chance of remaining a potent force for school change," said James Deanes, who has served as an LSC member and now oversees the councils and other community partnerships for the school district.

He and other observers say the councils need more and better training. The volunteers already are trained in school law, finance, and principal evaluations, but may need more guidance and expertise to avoid power struggles or influence by Chicago's many competing school advocacy groups.

"It's real easy for a community activist to be sucked into a personality conflict," in some cases, said Don Washington, the director of school council elections for the Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative.

In recent weeks, a host of civic and community leaders had launched a campaign to drum up candidates for the elections, which will be held April 5 and 6.

Mayor Daley helped kick off the councils' election season by speaking at a breakfast with business leaders last fall. Business, civic, and religious leaders are showing interest in the councils by attending meetings and spreading the word about the elections.

"That was progress," Mr. Wade said of the mayor's interest and what it could mean to the councils' future.

He added that more visible commitments to the system by Mr. Vallas, the mayor, and others—who have little choice but to work within the status quo for now—could help strengthen the system "from the top."

Vol. 19, Issue 27, Page 10

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