An 11th-hour effort by Chicago Public Schools to take away local school councils’ authority to fire principals has failed to move forward in the Legislature this session.

Although CPS started quietly shopping its idea to state lawmakers in mid-April, district officials waited until May 25—days before the scheduled end of the spring session on May 31—to offer up a formal legislative proposal.

Rep. Daniel Burke, a Democrat from the Southwest Side, was at first prepared to sponsor the bill when CPS officials came to him last week. But he says the district left him with too little time to explain specifics to other lawmakers, while combating intense opposition from LSCs. Meanwhile, lawmakers are focused on finalizing a state spending plan, and they have little time to wade through the controversial proposal.

“Now the LSCs are going crazy, and it’s really too late to do anything, I’m afraid,” Burke says. “Before they had even seen the bill, they were lobbying against it. It’s just bad timing.” The proposal was written as an amendment to Senate Bill 841, which pertains to free and reduced-cost lunches at public schools.

The major provision in the proposal would strip LSCs of their power to refuse to renew the contract of any principal who earned favorable job performance ratings from area instructional officers. (For details on the proposal, see sidebar here.)

Burke says he intends to hold hearings this summer in Chicago to collect input from LSCs and other interested parties. He may introduce the proposal in the fall legislative session.

Burke’s district is home to Curie Metro High, where Principal Jerryelyn Jones’ ousting earlier this year sparked Mayor Richard Daley and CEO Arne Duncan to call for more constraints on LSC powers. Jones is taking her case to arbitration and is fighting to keep her job.

The district’s efforts are a repeat of a similar scenario that took place eight years, ago when then-schools chief Paul Vallas tried to push lawmakers to give CPS veto power over LSC decisions to retain principals.

Legislators undecided

Back in April, CPS leaders began floating their plan by treating key lawmakers to a reception at the Sangamo Club, a private venue two blocks from the Capitol. School Board President Rufus Williams attended the event, and Duncan visited the Capitol the following morning to continue discussions with lawmakers.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), chair of the Senate Education Committee, was among the special guests at the Sangamo. She believes CPS was putting out “feelers” to see how lawmakers responded.

“I’m a little bit caught in the middle,” she says. “I believe in local control and I don’t know that it’s a good idea to take the power away from them. Both sides have valid points.”

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat and childhood friend of Duncan, also was at the reception. Raoul calls LSCs a “healthy concept” but says the Curie High incident highlights problems that can arise when LSCs have power over principal hiring and firing. He also notes the struggle to get people involved with LSCs.

“I don’t know what the turnout is in local school council elections, is but I would venture to guess that it’s pretty dismal,” Raoul says. “Often you don’t even get enough people to run for the positions. When you consider that – that they don’t necessarily represent the voice of the school community or the community at large – it’s a pretty dangerous thing to give unfettered power to appoint principals.”

During the last LSC election in 2006, 62 schools had fully contested elections, but more candidates ran than in 2004 (See Catalyst, March 2006.)

Also at the Sangamo was House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Democrat who represents the Hyde Park area.

Says Currie, “I have not seen anything from them on this topic, and I would advise that they might want to do a little groundwork before they come in with some wholesale change.”

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