Fewer Candidates Running for Chicago School Seats

By Ann Bradley — October 09, 1991 5 min read

As Chicagoans cast their ballots Oct. 9 to elect new members of the councils that govern each of the city’s 540 schools, they will choose from fewer than half the number of candidates who ran for the councils when they were first established in 1989.

This fall, 8,173 parents, teachers, and community members registered to run for the 5,400 available seats-a sharp drop from the 17,256 candidates who ran when the city’s ambitious school-reform plan was just getting off the ground.

Each council consists of six parents, two community members, two teachers, the school principal, and, in the high schools, students. The teachers and students are appointed by the board of education.

Three-quarters of the schools had enough parent candidates to have contested elections, while 63 percent had enough community residents for voters to have a choice. Fewer than half had enough teacher candidates to ensure that school staff members, who will nominate two teachers to the board of education for final appointment to the councils, will have a choice among teachers.

Only half of the schools had enough candidates to ensure competitive elections of both parent and community candidates.

The voting takes place against a backdrop of continuing concern over recent budget cuts that led the school board to lay off teachers and close several schools.

Last week, the Chicago Teachers Union’s policymaking body decided to take a strike vote of the member- ship on Oct. 15 if no progress is made this week in negotiations over the 7- percent raises the board of education says it is unable to pay teachers.

Limited Registration Drive

In an analysis of the candidate registration, the reform-advocacy group Designs for Change attributed much of the diminished interest in the elections to this year’s limited candidate-recruitment campaign.

In its report, the reform group criticized the Chicago Board of Education for failing to target its re- sources toward the elections. In 1989, the board spent $600,000 on advertising and employed more than 100 experienced organizers in a get-out-the-vote effort that lasted several months, the analysis noted.

Linda Matsumoto, the school system’s press secretary, said the total budget for the elections and follow-up training of newly elected candidates this year is $1 million, down from the $6 million spent in 1989.

“Let’s be realistic,” Ms. Matsumoto said. “Our fiscal realities unfortunately have impacted on several areas, including reform implementation.”

Both Ms. Matsumoto and Clinton Bristew Jr., president of the beard of education, noted that board members and General Superintendent Ted D. Kimbrough held several press conferences around the city to generate media interest in the elections.

Mr. Bristow also faulted the Illinois legislature for refusing to appropriate money for Chicago school reform.

But Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, noted that the school system has a $2 billion-plus budget. “I don’t think it was a lack of money so much as it was a lack of willingness to put a priority on supporting the council election process,” he said. Reform advocates had hoped to see 10,000 candidates register the same goal set and exceeded in 1989.

The recruitment efforts conducted by business, school-reform, and community groups this year also were less extensive than they were two years ago, the analysis noted.

Until mid-summer, when the state legislature changed the voting procedure to address a court ruling declaring it unconstitutional, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the elections, said Bruce Cecil, a Chicago business executive directing the election program for Leadership for Quality Education, the business community’s school-reform organization.

“A lot of our program was held up until that time,” Mr. Cecil said.

The poorest of the city’s 10 subdistricts had the largest percentage of parent candidates per school, the reform group’s analysis found, due in large part to a well-organized recruitment effort by community organizations and a large corporation. The subdistrict also was the only one to have enough candidates to fill all of the council seats reserved for parents.

The analysis “strongly suggests that a well-planned, grassroots effort to encourage candidacy can create competitive elections in virtually every school,” the report said.

Elementary Turnout High

Although far lower than two years ago, the number of contested elections compares favorably with candidate interest in school-board elections in suburban Cook County, where 63 percent of the elections are contested, the analysis noted.

The average school in the city had nine parent candidates for the six parent seats, three to four community residents for the two community seats, and three teacher candidates for the two teacher seats.

In schools lacking enough parent and community representatives, the newly elected council members will appoint people to fill the positions.

Parental interest in the elections was higher in elementary schools than in high schools. More than 90 percent of the city’s elementary schools had enough candidates to fill all of the parent seats on their councils, compared with only 80 percent of the high schools.

The report noted that the lower turnout among high-school parents would require further study.

Low-income schools were slightly more likely to have more parent candidates than other schools, the analysis found, but there were no differences among schools when students’ race and ethnicity were taken into account.

The schools without enough parent candidates varied widely in location, income level of students, and experience under the first two years of school reform, the study found.

The substantial amount of work required of the council members-who are not paid--may have discouraged some candidates from running, the analysis said. Some candidates who saw little or no improvement in their schools under reform or were upset by the recent budget cuts also may have decided to sit out the election.

However, the analysis noted that middle-class schools and schools viewed as improving also had limited numbers of candidates, suggesting that people chose not to run because they were satisfied with their schools.

Joy Noven, director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a reform advocacy group, said she did not view the drop in the number of candidates negatively.

“You’re looking at over 8,000 people who are doing volunteer work for the public schools,” Ms. Noven said. “And for every [council] member, there are at least twice that number that volunteer in the schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as Fewer Candidates Running for Chicago School Seats