The countdown has begun for Chicago’s local school councils to exercise their most important duty: deciding whether to renew their principal’s contract.

Contracts for principals at 175 elementary and high schools are set to expire next June, and councils must notify them by Feb. 1 whether they will be offered a renewal or be replaced.

Under state law, LSCs must complete a state-mandated evaluation process before they deliberate and announce their decision. The evaluation is based on several criteria, including instructional leadership, improvement on academic performance and communication with parents and staff.

Every few years, a large number of principal contracts expire at the same time, but the current wave offers a unique opportunity to test the strength and effectiveness of LSCs in a post-Paul Vallas era as well and the new administration’s commitment to helping LSCs.

Over the past six years, relations between the Chicago School Board and LSCs had steadily chilled as CEO Paul Vallas sought more control of and accountability from schools. The two sides hit the freezing point in 1999 when the board asked state legislators to shift authority for hiring and firing principals away from LSCs. After lobbying from LSC-backers, legislators approved a compromise—Senate Bill 652—which gave principals the right to request an independent review of an LSC decision not to renew their contract.

Since Arne Duncan took over as CEO in June, he has been open to conversations about how to improve strained board-LSC relations, says Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). “The all-out assault on LSCs seems to be over, and that means a lot,” she says.

Non-profit groups that work with LSCs are looking to Duncan for more support and help to eliminate board interference that they say has become a routine part of principal contract decisions in recent years.

At Curtis Elementary in Roseland, for instance, the LSC is engaged in a battle with its principal after members decided not to renew his contract, Woestehoff says. The board is responding by questioning the eligibility of one LSC member, even though the council has more than enough votes to oust the principal, Woestehoff explains. The board’s action exacerbates, rather than soothes, tensions, she adds.

“The big opportunity right now is to no longer make it a political question,” says Andrew Wade, executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative, an umbrella organization of community-based groups that help train and elect LSC members.

But years of fighting against the board have taken a toll, and LSCs have not been adequately trained to evaluate principals, review contracts and hire replacements, if necessary, Wade adds. “We haven’t done the LSC training on the scale that we need to.”

In 1998, the board required all new LSC members to take board-sponsored classes to fulfill mandatory training requirements—a policy that shut out a number of universities and community groups that had been filling that role. The groups fought the policy and in May 2000, it was reversed.

Still, a lack of funding makes it difficult for non-profit groups to reach all LSCs, says Wade. In December and January, his cooperative is offering two drop-in training sessions on principal evaluations for LSCs.

Board officials say they are holding up their end. In the past 10 months, CPS has offered 23 sessions on principal selection, says Deputy Chief Education Officer Carlos Azcoitia.

A variety of training resources are available to help LSCs, says Azcoitia, who disagrees with those who say insufficient training prevents councils from hiring a new principal. “If they really want to make a change, they’ll know how,” he says.

At a recent workshop for LSCs conducted by Designs for Change, trainers outlined the principal selection process: how councils use the board’s principal evaluation forms; how to conduct meetings to discuss principal performance; arbitration rules that govern a principal’s appeal of the decision not to renew a contract; and how to draft addendums in new or renewed contracts.

It was an eye-opening lesson for Judy Greenfield and Jacqueline Scott, both parent LSC members at Marquette Elementary. “Now we’re seeing the real picture,” says Scott.

Marquette’s principal is retiring Dec. 31, and council members are feeling the pressure of learning the correct procedure to hire a replacement, says Greenfield.

Even with a mix of new and old members on the council, it’s been tough because none of them has ever hired a principal, she says. At Marquette, a school with 2,500 students, the principal post can pay an annual salary as high as $120,000.

“We want to make sure [the principal we hire] is here for the children, and not for the money,” Greenfield says.

Absent the pressure to search for and hire a new principal, LSCs are also grappling with the details of the process.

LSC chairman Theodore Coleman says the council at Schmid Elementary in Calumet Heights has been struggling to collect all the necessary paperwork to make a fair decision on contract renewal. Coleman says his council must collect all test score and attendance records, as well as all evaluations conducted by previous LSCs.

“This has been the toughest thing I’ve had to face,” Coleman says. “We’re talking about a person’s livelihood.”

Coleman, a two-term parent representative, says his council would welcome more help, particularly if it decides to launch a search for a new principal.

That’s when things can get tough for a council, says Bernard Lacour of Designs for Change, a school reform group. Tensions inevitably mount when it becomes clear that an LSC will seek a replacement principal.

In the past, such situations would often trigger battles between LSCs and board administrators. “It’s sort of like class war,” says Lacour. “When a principal is being threatened, they recruit friends from central office for help.”

To survive a contentious selection process, councils must follow proper procedures and protect their authority to evaluate principals, Lacour adds.

Others say some LSCs struggle after losing members in mid-term. Longtime members who leave often take with them the experience of hiring the principal. Replacement LSC members face a steep learning curve and must quickly assess a principal in time for the next evaluation.

One solution may be staggered terms, says Al Bertani, who headed principal training at the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (CPAA).

Council members serve two-year terms and principals serve four-year terms. Bertani, who takes over as chief of CPS professional development, says an alternating schedule of council elections would create more continuity.

Dave Peterson of CPAA says, “The vision of the people who picked the principal is not always the vision of the people who renew. It’s not the principal’s fault or their fault. I don’t think it works well for schools.”

Azcoitia says the board is committed to helping LSCs prepare to carry out their legal duties. One way to do that, he says, is by encouraging existing LSC members to remain on their councils for another term when elections are held next May.

Experienced council members can help newly elected members learn the ropes. “We need to have continuity,” he says.

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