Last-minute recruiting brought the number of candidates for local school council elections next month to 7,059 by the Mar. 17 filing deadline, according to data from Chicago Public Schools.

The candidate count is higher than the last election in 2004, when nearly 6,900 parents, community representatives and teachers filed to run. This year, 62 schools will have fully contested elections.

Meanwhile, the longtime head of the district office that oversees elections announced he is leaving his post.

James Deanes, who oversaw the Office of School and Community Relations, announced at a March 3 recruitment training that Carole Wood, another CPS administrator, will take over his duties.

Wood will work with another administrator, Greg Minniefield, on an audit to “look at how the office is managed and evaluate for efficiency,” says Deanes, who will continue to oversee the upcoming election while assuming new duties as a special assistant to board President Michael Scott.

Diana Nelson, executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, says she is not concerned that the change will unduly affect the upcoming elections on April 19-20. Nelson is a leader in Community Partners for LSCs, a coalition of 30 community groups that worked to recruit candidates.

Still, she notes, “here it is right before the election and they have moved out the guy who’s supposed to be in charge. It’s a dreadful time to have someone new step in. …The timing is very peculiar.”

CPS is preparing for its first LSC elections since the launch of Renaissance 2010, which some activists view as a thinly-veiled attempt to further undercut local control by creating schools that, for the most part, are not required to have LSCs. In addition, more existing schools are now on probation, which strips LSCs of principal hiring power and budget authority.

LSC advocates hope the district will keep its pledge to double the amount of money provided to community groups, to $56,000; the district announced the pledge in a March 1 press release.

Some advocates are skeptical that the board will provide enough cash to do sufficient recruiting. “I am really excited, but it didn’t sound like a guarantee,” says Andrea Lee, education organizer at the Grand Boulevard Federation. “Right now, we’re basically providing technical assistance, and with a little extra money we can really do a lot more.”

PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education) suggested the board reallocate some of its $1.49 million election budget—specifically, money allocated to consultants, postage, election judges and translations of materials—so that community groups could receive $500,000.

“I’m looking at our budget so I can see how we can give community agencies more money,” says Bill Rice of the Office of School and Community Relations. “Since I’m having trouble finding $30,000, I doubt that [$500,000] is feasible.”

Death by a thousand cuts

With a $10,000 grant from the Woods Fund of Chicago, Community Partners held a press conference in February to highlight the need for candidates and provide information about the election.

Member organizations have been knocking on doors to recruit, handing out fliers at schools and placing informational pamphlets in aldermen’s offices to publicize the election.

“We’re going door-to-door and spreading information because nobody knows anything. It’s astonishing,” says Madeline Talbott, director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). “It’s not the only thing you need to do, but it’s critical. An LSC is a wonderful structure and without [them] we would just be moving backwards.”

CPS officials, however, said they worked diligently to publicize the upcoming election: placing ads on public transit, in newspapers and on radio encouraging people to run.

“We definitely have been out there,” says CPS Marketing Director Joi Mecks. “We don’t have a lot of money and we would love to have more, but we were able to use the resources we have efficiently.”

CPS officials say the district sent applications home with students’ parents and set up recruiting stations at several Jewel and Dominick’s stores across the city. Mecks also points to a supplement placed in the Chicago Sun-Times advertising the election and including stories featuring LSC members’ experiences.

With LSC powers on the decline, some activists wonder whether they are the best vehicle for community and parent participation.

“There are some fundamental concerns I have with LSCs and their effectiveness,” says Allison Moore, education organizer for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. Moore says many LSCs are undermined by powerful principals and receive little support from central office.

“My feeling is that [the state of] LSCs is a symptom of a much larger school culture that is not inclusive of parents and families,” she continues. “I think there’s much larger work that needs to be done…and LSCs are one small piece of a larger puzzle.”

John Ayers, the new director of communications for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a former head of the now-defunct Leadership for Quality Education, sees charter boards as an indication of a shift away from the LSC concept.

“I think central office has, over the years, lost interest in LSCs and they have, in classic bureaucratic fashion, been able to take much of their powers,” Ayers says. “Charters have non-profit boards, and I would argue those are another way to gain community involvement, and maybe a better one.”

But other activists insist that LSCs give parents a democratically elected voice in running schools and have been a key component in turning around failing schools.

“LSCs are a critical ingredient to sustain student achievement and improvement at a school level,” says Nelson of Cross City.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE, says LSCs have been “a breath of fresh air” for individuals who have felt disenfranchised. “For parents who have no other opportunity to have control over their lives, this has made such an enormous difference to them, and they’re not going to be willing to give it up.”

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