Chicago Mayor Poised To Take District’s Reins

By Ann Bradley — June 21, 1995 6 min read
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Chicagoans watched closely last week for clues about the future of the city’s schools, as Mayor Richard M. Daley prepared to assume unprecedented control over a big-city district through the appointment of a corporate-style board.

Mr. Daley appeared poised to name his outgoing chief of staff, Gery Chico, to the position of president of the “superboard” that will run the system for the next four years. The city budget director, Paul Vallas, was considered the likely choice for the new job of chief executive officer, with the powers and duties now handled by the general superintendent.

The dramatic restructuring of the governance of the 410,000-student Chicago public schools emerged last month from the Republican-controlled Illinois legislature. The new law establishes the five-member Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees and directs it to appoint a management team including chief operating, fiscal, purchasing, and educational officers. (See Education Week, 6/7/95.)

Facing a Shortfall

The mayor’s office refused to comment last week on the appointments, which must be made by July 1. But observers said they expect Mr. Daley himself to announce the appointees to all 10 board and management positions at the same time.

The immediate goal for the new managers--reflected in the business-oriented governance structure--will be closing the $150 million shortfall in the system’s $2.9 billion budget.

Less clear is how Chicago’s nationally watched experiment with locally run schools will fare under the new arrangement.

“The two big questions are who and what,” G. Alfred Hess Jr., the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, said last week. “Who’s going to be on the board and who will be at the top level of leadership in the system? What are they going to do in the first year or two of their efforts?”

‘Question Mark’

The position of chief educational officer, observers speculated, is likely to be filled by a Chicagoan. Potential candidates include principals who have turned around troubled schools since passage of the 1988 reform law that put a decentralized governance system in place, and academics from area colleges and universities.

Reform-advocacy groups pressed last week for an educational officer who understands and supports Chicago-style reform. “We could completely submerge the effort if we put into that office somebody who is focused on a back-to-basics or top-down and didactic approach,” Mr. Hess warned.

The new law removes some obstacles that have hamstrung Chicago schools, which are governed by local councils of parents, teachers, and principals. For example, it puts principals in charge of all the employees of their schools and gives them the authority to set school hours and staff schedules.

The law also bars the Chicago Teachers Union from bargaining over many issues that were previously negotiated, including class size, staffing and assignments, academic calendars, hours and places of instruction, and pupil-assessment policies. The union cannot bargain over privatizing services or decisions about charter schools and experimental educational programs, and is barred. from striking for 18 months.

In theory, individual schools could craft their own policies, free of systemwide constraints. But observers cautioned last week that the new board of trustees could instead centralize power.

“Chicago has been an incredible laboratory for looking at what school-based management can and can’t do,” said Robert Berne, an authority on urban school governance and the dean of the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.

Promoting local school improvement “requires leadership that is supportive and enabling,” Mr. Berne said, “and this throws a complete question mark into the ability to maintain that kind of support.”

Union Threatens Suit

The severe restrictions on collective bargaining also have demoralized the city’s teachers--who are key players in school improvement, said Diana Lauber, the senior program director for the Chicago-based Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

“If the only thing you can collectively bargain is salaries, that’s serious,” Ms. Lauber said. Although her organization, in a recent report, called for master teaching contracts that give schools many options, she said the Chicago law goes too far.

The teachers’ union, in fact, plans to file lawsuits challenging the bargaining restrictions and the loss of job protections for paraprofessionals, said Jackie Gallagher, the union’s spokeswoman. “It was our time to be drawn and quartered,” she said.

But the union is not opposed to the governance change itself, she added. “We’re willing to try anything,” she said. “No matter how the system comes together, it doesn’t seem to work for the good of the kids.”

The “superboard” will replace a 15-member school board whose members were appointed by the mayor from slates prepared by a nominating commission. The cumbersome process became enmeshed in politics and drew few interested candidates.

Other urban districts also have wrestled with governance in recent years.

In 1991, Boston’s elected school board was abolished in favor of a mayorally appointed board, in an effort to make the mayor accountable for the schools. Governance also has been a prominent, ongoing issue in New York City.

“No one has yet figured out the optimal big-city mayoral-school district arrangement,” Mr. Berne said. “It almost sounds like angels on the head of a pin, in terms of board members and who appoints them.”

Focus on Accountability

Of immediate concern for many Chicago educators are the law’s provisions for bringing accountability to city schools.

An academic-accountability council will be created to develop ways to evaluate schools and report to the superboard.

That council will recommend troubled schools for intervention, which would take place following public hearings and evaluations of all employees at the school. Failing schools could be “reconstituted,” with new leadership and teaching staffs.

Reform advocates said they hope the process will build upon promising work already done in Chicago to evaluate schools on a wide range of measures--not just standardized-test scores.

“We would hope they would create a very high-quality accountability council and go by its recommendations, rather than jump in willy-nilly in schools and start writing people up,” said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a reform-advocacy and training organization in the city.

Jockeying for Influence

Designs for Change and other advocacy organizations jockeyed last week to make their views known to city hall and to influence decisionmaking. A group of nine organizations held a press conference to recommend ways to close the budget gap without hurting schools.

Chicago principals, who are enthusiastic about some parts of the law, have formed a task force to analyze it and make recommendations to the new board.

“We’re awed by our responsibilities, because there are a lot of punitive measures,” said Beverly Tunney, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

Meanwhile, Mayor Daley has offered his own ideas. In speeches, he has endorsed smaller high schools of 400 to 500 students; alternative schools for students with discipline problems; “taking over” schools with low test scores and high dropout rates; experimenting with private management of troubled schools; and privatizing facilities management and payroll.

“This is the most important thing for the city of Chicago,” Leonard J. Dominguez, the deputy mayor for education, said of the school system. “It affects every other enterprise, both economic and social. We’re going to devote everything we can to it.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1995 edition of Education Week as Chicago Mayor Poised To Take District’s Reins


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