Service leadership requires commitment not only during good times but also challenging times, and we have had many of those. School board members must be loyal to the school system, but that does not mean they are simply a cheerleader. Board members need to be the guardians of the public interest, representing students, families and taxpayers. Our role is not to support the administration or the political establishment or to represent a single constituency. We must be independent thinkers who seek solutions. Sometimes it can be achieved with consensus but not always.*
Even though many board responsibilities flow from statutory obligations, a board member is a fiduciary. We are responsible for the effective use of all resources.
As my term as a member of the Chicago Board of Education began in January 2013, it was clear to me that the system needed to pay more attention to quality school options, especially neighborhood and community schools. CPS needed to provide support and autonomy for neighborhood schools that showed potential for fast growth.
All schools needed to play by the same rules, serving students with different learning needs appropriately and successfully. Shared accountability standards needed to be put in place for all school models, not just some. Student discipline practices needed to be fair across the district. Selectivity and school transfers should not be allowed to create unfair competition between charters and neighborhood schools.
Practices at quality charter schools needed to be shared. Even though district-run schools show slightly higher academic gains, some charters and contract schools have been successful serving students and families in different communities. AUSL schools have also demonstrated progress serving high-need communities. There are areas of the city that need new school models and do not jeopardize improving neighborhood schools.
As a school district with limited resources, we faced the painful decision to close many neighborhood schools that had gone through significant demographic changes. That was the biggest challenge of my term. At least we saw more resources and support go into nearby neighborhood schools, and those consolidated schools have begun to demonstrate progress with the transferred students. While immediate savings were not apparent, long-term savings would be achieved.
Another challenging decision was the no-bid SUPES Academy professional development contract. While we all recognize the ongoing need for leadership development, it was an inappropriate expenditure following the school closings and the projected deficit. I was traveling during that vote but upon my return questioned the expenditure. For one, principals started calling to complain about the quality of the services. As it turns out, my colleagues had asked the right questions, but the answers came from only one source, the administration. We continue to feel the detrimental effects of this decision, especially as the federal investigation of the contract unfolds.
ARAMARK services continue to be a challenge in multiple schools. While some schools have seen improvements in school cleanliness, others have not. The intent of the contract was to relieve principals of custodial responsibilities. However, when people have concerns or requests they go to the principal anyway.
As board members, we need to always ask — before any action is taken – are we improving quality? Are we getting the best results for our investment? Are we communicating with the people most affected by our decisions? Does it promote equity? One situation begging for equity came when the board considered a contract for after-school programming. Some schools had federal 21st Century School funds to pay for after-school and community services, but many did not. Those schools, not an outside agency, should have received money from the board. And it finally got done.
We also need to continue to assess the interplay of a policy and its implementation in schools – does the policy make sense at the local level? So it is critical to get continuing input from principals, teachers, parents and communities.
People will respect board members who have done their homework, so we must develop as many sources of information as time allows. The administration can be the chief source, but that is but one point of view. To get the whole picture, we must listen to all constituencies. As we continue to be a district of multiple options and models — neighborhood, community, charters, contract, and magnet schools — we must all come together to plan and serve communities with shared accountability standards and autonomies for deserving schools. We must also continue to protect and support the unique role of Local School Councils.
We must support the expansion of early childhood services in communities with the greatest need. At the other end of the student spectrum, we must all come together to address the issue of disengaged youth who are not attending school and develop undesirable behaviors that might lead to violence and crime. Partnerships with families and communities — as well as city, business and philanthropic engagement — must be strengthened.
But most of all we must address equity and excellence with funding mechanisms and new revenue channels.
We need to make democracy work for all students, families and communities. CPS has a long way to go, especially with Latino leadership, who represent the largest cohort of students in CPS. Students need to see more role models who represent their cultural identities and have lived similar experiences. We must also organize communities in order to form coalitions that can find solutions to common needs.
We have made significant progress, with higher graduation rates, ACT scores, freshmen on-track to graduate and college persistence. Let’s continue in this trajectory with new energy. It was an honor to serve.
Rabindranath Tagore: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Carlos M. Azcoitia served in CPS as a teacher, principal, central office administrator and for the past two and a half years, a Board of Education member. His children attended district-run CPS schools. He also is a Distinguished Professor of Practice at National Louis University and board chair of Northeastern Illinois University.
*An unfinished draft of this op-ed was originally posted on August 21, but was updated shortly thereafter.