This year, organizations that are trying to recruit parents and community residents to run in the upcoming local school council elections will have to sign up candidates before they receive full funding from the district for their efforts. It’s a far cry from the heyday of LSCs when private foundations fronted the money—as much as $400,000—to seed candidate recruitment.

Private funders have bowed out of the LSC business and the district has budgeted $135,000 for the process. Under a new pay-for-performance plan, organizations will receive only $250 in start-up grant funding. Each candidate recruited will be worth an additional $6 or $7, up to a total grant of $2,500, says Jose Alvarez, director of external affairs and LSC relations. To earn the full grant, a group would have to recruit more than 300 candidates.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, says her organization received $25,000 to help recruit candidates for the 2000 election. The money allowed PURE to hire staff to recruit candidates, run election programs on cable access networks and present workshops on the basics of LSC operations.

This year, PURE is one of 19 recipients getting $250 up front, with more promised only under the pay-for-performance plan. But Woestehoff says, “We just don’t know what we’ll be able to do this year, given the lack of resources.” The initial $250 is enough to print flyers, but not much more.

Funding for LSC candidate recruitment has decreased dramatically since the late 1990s, when support for the councils was at its zenith. From 1998 to 2002, an ad-hoc fund administered by the School Leadership Cooperative through Leadership for Quality Education used money supplied by private foundations to give local organizations grants for candidate recruitment and campaign assistance. Donations peaked in 2000, with more than $400,000.

But support fell off quickly. The fund last operated during the 2002 election cycle; its resources then totaled only $80,000. Since then, CPS has been the source of LSC cash. During the 2006 election cycle, organizations received $2,500 grants from CPS—all delivered up front—to recruit candidates, which committed $70,000 to the effort. This year, CPS plans to spend $135,000 to fund the recruiting organizations, as well as district recruiting efforts.

Changing priorities

While Woestehoff says the pay-for-performance program undercuts her organization’s ability to recruit, Alvarez says he thinks “$7 per applicant is a fair amount on top of the startup funds that we gave them.” LSC application forms that the district distributed to organizations were numbered so his office can track who recruits candidates.

There are approximately 5,700 open spots on about 550 local school councils.The deadline for filing has been extended to March 24.

Gudelia Lopez, senior program officer in education for the Chicago Community Trust, says the foundation no longer funds LSC elections because it has narrowed its priorities.

“It’s an issue of where the country is, where Chicago is, in terms of student achievement,” she says. “Now it’s much more tightly focused on the curricular areas of instruction, and this is also in line with what the district has been doing since Barbara [Eason-Watkins] and Arne [Duncan] took over. They’ve been focusing more on curriculum and instruction.”

The Wieboldt Foundation, which also used to contribute to the election fund, has had less money to give away in recent years. It now funds community organizing groups that include education among their issues.

“There was always the feeling that [election funding] would be institutionalized by CPS,” says the foundation’s associate director, Carmen Prieto. “It was never going to be that private philanthropy would forever be the source of support for this. The philanthropic community felt that it should be supported by a dedicated revenue stream.”

Big goals

This pay-for-performance approach is new for the district. Alvarez expects the recipients of the $250 recruiting grants (see list on page 16) to find 20 to 25 candidates for each council. That would be a whopping 10,000 candidates, a dramatic increase over the 7,000-some that have signed up in previous years.

Alvarez blames the lack of LSC participation on a dearth of knowledge about the councils. His office is trying a new tactic this year. With help from members of successful LSCs, the district will host LSC information sessions in each cluster and most areas.

As in years past, the district will run a $35,000 to $70,000 marketing campaign to promote LSCs through advertisements in neighborhood, community and ethnic newspapers such as Chicago Journal, Hoy and Chicago Defender, as well as radio stations such as WGCI, WLIT and WGN. Although ads are not as effective as direct recruiting, Alvarez says, “we’re doing both to make sure that we don’t leave anyone out.”

Recruiting candidates has been difficult for years, but it may get even tougher. As the parents who started the school reform movement get older, interest and participation in LSCs is waning, says Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.

“A lot of people who join LSCs now have no sense of the history of Chicago school reform,” Brown says.

Mary Williams, 68, is the LSC president at White Elementary Career Academy, in West Pullman. She knows the problem well. She has served on the council nearly every term since its inception. Most of the council members at her school are her age—grandparents, great-grandparents and foster parents.

“It seems that the younger parents are just not interested,” she says. At one point, she resorted to cooking and serving a four-course meal at every LSC meeting in an effort to encourage attendance. She doesn’t want to run again, but she may if there is a shortage of candidates.

The lack of participation in LSC elections in Chicago mirrors difficulties that school boards have recruiting candidates nationwide, according to Kathy Christie, who is vice president of ECS Clearinghouse (the research arm of the Education Commission of the States). “Sometimes there’s a perception that they’re not given real work to do,” she says.

Legislative battles

There is little research about the effectiveness of LSCs that applies to Chicago, she says, because few areas have councils with as much power. But even here, it is easy for boards to “get dragged down into nitty gritty decisions they probably shouldn’t be spending their time on,” such as extracurricular activities and playground equipment.

“All of those things certainly need to be dealt with,” she says, “but even local councils, like district boards, need to at least try to keep some emphasis on curriculum and instruction.”

Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, blames the district’s past failure to educate LSCs about their rights and powers for the lack of parental interest and understanding.

Nor has the district reached out to LSCs for support for its initiatives such as back-to-school campaigns, he says. And then there are the board’s ongoing attempts to pass legislation that would take away principal selection powers.

“The current board president, Rufus Williams, has said once again that he wants to take the powers away from the LSCs,” Moore says, referring to a statement Williams made in an address to the City Club of Chicago. “So we’re preparing for another legislative battle this spring.”

For more on the history of LSCs and the turmoil at Curie High School that led to a call for limiting LSC powers, click here.

To contact Rebecca Harris, send an e-mail to

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