Local school councils have not figured prominently in the efforts of schools chief Paul Vallas to improve Chicago’s public schools. He’s clashed openly with a number, mainly over principal selection, and routinely belittles LSC advocacy groups.

At the January 1999 School Board meeting, he said, “Tonight, we’ve heard about quite a few principals that have been doing a good job, but then they are fired [by their LSCs]. We’re going to take a look at that.”

Subsequently, Vallas drew up legislation requiring LSCs to renew the contracts of principals who had been rated satisfactory by the administration. The proposal went on to allow councils to appeal the renewal requirement to the School Board, but it directed the board to consider the superintendent’s recommendation, too. As the school year began, no principal had an administrative rating of unsatisfactory; by the time it ended, 97 percent of principals up for renewal had been retained by their LSCs.

LSC groups mounted an intense lobbying effort against Vallas’s proposal; after two months, legislators rejected it, deciding instead to permit dismissed principals to appeal their dismissal to a hearing officer appointed by the American Arbitration Association.

According to Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), who handled the legislation (Senate Bill 652) in the House, “Both Republicans and Democrats are heavily invested in local control for the Chicago public schools. I don’t think, generally speaking, that members of either party were anxious to overturn local authority. However, the final product does provide a mechanism to reverse course when an LSC has decided to terminate a principal without any rational basis for doing so.”

She adds that while Vallas enjoys much respect in Springfield, “He doesn’t quite rule the roost.”

As LSC advocates see it, the Legislature drew a line in the sand. “If councils were going to be advisory, it would have happened [then],” says Julie Woestehoff, who heads Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). “That moment passed with Senate Bill 652. Councils are stronger now. We won.”

Business leaders active in school reform generally have been in LSCs’ corner. They helped create them in 1988 and, in recent years, have tried to make them work better. For example, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, through its Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC), runs what amounts to a consulting firm for councils choosing principals. Over the last three years, 50 councils have sought the organization’s help. FRAC also operates an assessment center for aspiring principals; more than 350 have taken part.

As 2000 dawned, the city’s philanthropic foundations were showing renewed interest in LSCs, with 10 awarding a total of $400,000 for recruitment and get-out-the-vote drives for the April LSC elections. Mayor Richard M. Daley spoke at a campaign kick-off breakfast aimed at getting businesses to encourage their employees to run.

Ironically, as LSCs got a boost, the Chicago Association of Local School Councils fell apart amid leadership disputes that continued into 2000.

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