During the first blush of school reform, a web of legally constituted assemblies—district councils and the School Board Nominating Commission—functioned above the level of local school councils.
They were noisy, politically charged groups with defined powers, such as the authority to appoint district superintendents, approve an errant school’s remediation or probation and suggest School Board candidates to the mayor—but they all died with revisions to the Reform Act passed in 1995.
In their place there is only the Local School Council Advisory Board (LSCAB), mandated by state law to advise the School Reform Board of Trustees on citywide educational issues. Up and running since March, the LSCAB draws criticism as a neutered creature directed by the Reform Board. But supporters say LSCAB is a sensible improvement over what came before.
Beginning in August 1995, a 20-member interim committee convened to recommend a specific form for the LSCAB. “We had meetings that were very intense,” recalls member Sheila Castillo, coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils (CALSC). “Everyone had a vision of how the board should be organized.”
That November, the interim committee presented the Reform Board with three options. The alternatives spelled out an LSCAB of 19 to 24 members, but in each case the majority were to be elected and at least half were to be LSC parent representatives.
The Reform Board had other ideas. According to Leonard Dominguez, policy director for the public schools, they wanted a smaller board because they believed it would be more workable. “The second issue for us was to achieve a racial, ethnic and regional balance,” he says. “The more a board is elected, the greater is the tendency to lose that balance, and then you’ve failed. We wanted to see teachers and principals included, plus people involved in special education and bilingual programs, and they wouldn’t necessarily come through direct election.” There was an additional consideration, he adds: “The trustees wanted to see reasonable people on the board. They can provide the best feedback, not political feedback.”
The result, adopted by the Board of Trustees at its December meeting, was a 15-person LSCAB, with one delegate elected from each of six regions and nine members appointed by the trustees.
Elections for the regional members were scheduled for February. LSC members nominated themselves for office, candidate forums were held in each region, and then came the voting, with every LSC member allowed one vote. Pointing to the 25 percent turnout, Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, maintains the process was “a debacle.” At some schools, LSCs weren’t scheduled to meet during the balloting period.
The LSCAB is now composed of nine parent representatives, two community reps, two teachers and a couple of principals. The meetings, arranged through the Office of School and Community Relations, occur monthly on a Monday afternoon, with the sites varying from board headquarters on Pershing Road to locations out in the regions. Occasionally, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas or Reform Board President Gery Chico shows up to participate.
The proceedings begin with a short public-comment session that draws few speakers. There follows a business portion at which school officials make presentations and float plans and policies. The LSCAB members voice their opinions, sometimes vociferously. Chairman Thomas Gray, a community rep from Douglas Elementary and a director in the city’s Office of Special Events, runs a tight agenda. O’Hagin terms Gray “the mayor’s man,” but Daley calls Gray “a good citizen” and scoffs at the suggestion he’s involved with the LSCAB.
At the October meeting, held in the civics room of Lane Technical High School, a spirited discussion centered on a proposal by the Reform Board to allow each LSC to spend up to $1,500 a year to cover expenses for incidentals such as stationery, travel and stamps.
Member Larry Nowlin had qualms about the principal and the school clerk controlling the money. “I’ve been dealing with this long enough, and I know how the money rolls,” he said. Norberto Paredes, speaking passionately in Spanish (with an interpreter on hand to translate), opposed any limit on LSC fund raising. Gray asked everyone to forward their opinions to him in writing, pledging to congeal them into a common position.
Capping a discussion by collecting written comments is Gray’s way of giving voice to the body as a whole. The method enabled the LSCAB to give approval of systemwide homework rules and a draft principal’s contract.
Occasionally, though, a joint position never materializes; the LSCAB didn’t weigh in on Senate Bill 1019, a controversial measure to let the Reform Board establish requirements for the hiring of principals, because it became law while Gray digested the written comments.
Opinions differ about the worth of the LSCAB. “Very few people even know this group exists,” says O’Hagin, who monitors its operations. “When there is discussion, Gray makes sure it doesn’t go anywhere, so the board becomes a non-voice.”
Says LSCAB secretary Alys Lavicka, an elected member, “Yes, we’re carefully managed, and we don’t get into many controversial issues. It’s all very tame. I’d like to see a bit more public participation, but I also don’t think yelling and screaming accomplishes much.”
Nowlin balks at the suggestion that LSCAB is a rubber stamp for the trustees. “Now, sure, this isn’t like the bruising first days of fighting about reform,” he says, “but we pretty much get into it and make our decisions.” Insists Gray, “We aren’t putting out all these LSC fires here, because there are a million-plus fires. We’re dealing with overall problems and making recommendations on them, and we’re doing that very well.”