On LSC election day at 1 p.m., Chiquita Harris, visibly upset, rushes into the teachers’ lounge at Farren Fine Arts Elementary School in Grand Boulevard. “Is this where people vote?” she asks. “Is my name on here?”
Snatching a ballot, she exclaims, “Oh, lord, it is. I don’t want to run for this thing. I don’t want to be on here. I asked them to take my name off. … Take my name off.”
“We can’t,” an election judge replies. “It’s too late. You’re on the ballot, and people have started voting already.”
“Well, can I still vote,” Harris asks, “and do I have to vote for myself? I don’t want to vote for me. I don’t want to win.”
Harris, the mother of one child at Farren, concedes she signed up to run, but she says it was with great reluctance and only after a teacher twisted her arm. When the teacher first approached her, says Harris, she didn’t even know parents were eligible to serve on the council.
“This teacher told me I wouldn’t really have to do anything,” she explains to a reporter. “She said I only had to attend some meetings once in a while and it was no big deal. But I told her I was real uncomfortable about signing up, but she stayed on me so I said, OK.”
But then, when she received a notice to speak at a candidates’ forum, Harris figured the job was a bigger deal than the teacher had said. After looking into what councils are supposed do, Harris told the teacher she wanted out. But she never officially withdrew.
“I just can’t do this,” Harris insists. “You have to know what’s going on to help run the school, and I don’t. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
And there’s no place Harris can readily turn to find out. While Farren has brought lots of programs into the building for its students and has done a bang-up job of getting parents to volunteer, it has no links to organizations that prepare parents for leadership roles. Further, a number of parents and staffers contend there’s little communication inside the school itself, an allegation that the principal and council chair dispute.
“I didn’t know what the LSC represented or what they did,” parent Gina Fisher said in an interview before the election. “Some other parents didn’t either. I didn’t even know this school had a local school council, and I volunteered at this school for three years. So when I found out about it, I said, ‘Let me put my foot in this.'”
Fisher became one of seven parents, including two council incumbents, running for the six parent seats. Two other former parent members filed for the two community representative seats because their children graduated from Farren. And two new teachers filed to fill the seats being vacated by two veterans who retired from the system.
Like Fisher, teacher candidate Janis Blackman-Thomas says that the LSC has been lax in sharing information and involving the broader school community. She contends, for example, that teachers had no say in the school’s decision to become a fine arts school. “I just want to know why they changed the name,” she says. “I’d just like to know more.”
More generally, says Blackman-Thomas, “I want to see if the council is fully aware of what they are voting on and how knowledgeable they are about the things they are passing.”
Another staff member, who asked not to be identified, voices suspicions that the council is being manipulated. “Some of these people can’t count past 1,000, and they are in charge of the budget,” she says. “I want to know if they’ve had training in these areas, or is the principal telling them what to cut and what not to cut. I don’t think the council is aware of its power. And you can keep them that way if you get people like Harris, who acknowledges she doesn’t know what to do.”
Principal William Auksi acknowledges that council members have not had much formal training, but says they’ve been in the schools long enough to understand what’s going on. However, he welcomes the new mandate that requires council members to go through at least three days of training.
At the suggestion of the School Board’s intervention office, Farren also agreed to a partnership with DePaul University Professor Barbara Radner, whose work in the system has included parent participation and training.
“The school culture has changed. Teachers are talking about what works. And we are bringing more parents into the school,” says Auksi.
“Parents here are trying, not all of them, but many of them,” agrees Laura Taylor, a parent council member since 1990. “We are already combatting other things in the neighborhood like drugs and gangs. We want our babies to have a future. That’s all any LSC wants.”
Other than the LSC candidates, only five parents showed up for Farren’s April 3 candidates’ forum.
“Parents have not been notified about local school council meetings, and I want everyone to know what’s going on,” Fisher told the small gathering. “Plus, this school needs some more programs for our children, especially the girls. There are no programs for girls.”
“Wait, I beg to differ,” interjected LSC Chair Kevin Polk, who has served on the council since 1993. “What are you talking about?”
“There are all these programs for boys, and these young girls are getting pregnant,” Fisher responded. “There are all these educational programs after school. There needs to be something like dance or learning to do nails for girls.”
“Well, Farren is obligated to play a part,” countered Polk, “but salvation starts at home.”
Flustered, Fisher shifted gears, icily telling Polk, “I didn’t even know you were on the council after you were elected.”
“Listen,” said Polk, trying to ease the tension. “The school is open to suggestions and council meetings are held on Thursdays. We want you to be involved.”
“Yes, because these meetings have been hush-hush,” snapped Fisher.
“If you think our campaigning has been bad, we will address this issue,” Polk continued, ignoring the jab. “If you think we are being biased, you are welcome to meetings to voice your opinion.”
Roadblocks to running
Later, Auksi says notices have been sent home about both council meetings and the election. “My whole school community is in five buildings,” he says, gesturing toward the Robert Taylor Homes housing project across the street. “And this community operates by word of mouth. Parents have talked to other parents about the meetings and the election.”
One roadblock to getting more parents to run is the School Board’s prohibition against paid school workers serving on LSCs, says Auksi. Fifteen to 20 parents work at Farren and are paid $5 an hour. “Some of my best, most dedicated parents can’t run,” he says.
Taylor says she has asked parents who don’t work at Farren to come to meetings and run for the election but that “they don’t show.”
Taylor says that if anyone has dragged their feet on spreading the word about the election, it has been the School Board. “There has been no brouhaha like it was the last time. I got no information from the board. Nothing. I got a phone call from the school.”
The winners are…
As the election turned out, Taylor was the loser in the parent race. “I think people were pleased with what we had done, but they wanted to see some new faces,” she says. “I hope they build on some of the things we’ve done.”
That means, of course, that Chiquita Harris was a winner; she came in third. Informed by a reporter of her victory, she said, “I’m still not going to do it. The principal asked me to think about it, but I’m going to write a letter and tell them I’m not going to do it.”