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Chicago Public Schools Tue Jul 26 2011

Teachers Union, Parents Challenge Local School Council Elections

Tensions escalated on the education front this week when the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Education. United with other community groups, such as Designs for Change and Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), as well as nine individual Local School Council (LSC) members, the union alleges that the Board held illegal elections to fill new, non-teacher seats on the LSCs.

"The Board came swooping in and held these unlawful elections in all of the schools," said one of the CTU attorneys, Elaine Siegel. To her, the Board seemed to think, "'Let's go in there...and have [the elections] before the opposition can galvanize.'"

The opposition she spoke of is the "Local" side in this battle for control: who is really in charge? Individual schools, or the centralized Board?

LSCs came into existence in the late 1980s for the express purpose of restructuring the Chicago Public School system power balance - that is, "to shift the focus of educational decision-making and improvement from the central Board to the local school site," explains Don Moore, Executive Director of Designs for Change. As a consequence, LSCs were granted the power to hire (and fire) principals on four year contracts and to approve of schools' budgets.

The rise of LSCs meant that the Board's job became one of supporting "this school-based democracy," Moore said. Yet he suspects the motive behind their election push was anything but democratic. At least in part, it was an "effort to drive a wedge between the LCSs and the Board" and to shift the loyalties of the principals away from "Local" and toward "Central".

A CTU press release details that the January 1st law, allowing elections that would add non-teacher staff members to LSCs, was violated both in timing and in procedure. Despite the law's stipulation that the first of these elections was to take place in the spring of 2012, it was actually held just shy of one month later, on January 27th.

Although the law became effective in January, it had been on the table for quite a while - which means that the Board was well aware of its impending passage. Before this even occurred, on December 30th the Director of the Office of LSCs (which is part of the Board) Guillermo (Willy) Montes de Oca sent a memo to CPS principals containing election instructions.

For the plaintiffs, while it remains unclear who directed him to send the memo, its content is indisputable. Essentially, the principals were not told to inform the LSCs about the impending (and very early) January 27th election, and were misinformed that eligibility for both candidacy and voting-rights was limited to full-time employees.

The official CPS line, however, maintains that their accusers were "fully aware of the process" to fill the new non-teacher vacancies across all the LSCs. From the perspective of the Board, the election procedures were handled in a "transparent and organized fashion," and at no point did any of the plaintiffs raise an objection.

Nevertheless, Moore was clear that none of the plaintiffs is against having non-teachers on the LSCs - they're important members of the schools and the neighborhood communities, and often known both very well. The problem is what he believes is the Board's attempt to "give principals the ability to steer the election towards a certain person that was likely to support the principal, for example, when they came up for contract renewal."

If you have someone on the LSC who is "simply going to do whatever the principal says," then it undermines why Chicago has LSCs to begin with.

In his thirty-plus years in Chicago education reform, Moore says this is the first time the CTU and a number of school reform community organizations have banded together to jointly file a lawsuit.

The reason, says PURE Executive Director Julie Woestehoff, is due to their mutual "determination to maintain autonomous, democratic and representative LSCs in our schools. This institution serves Chicago children and parents. Students in schools with strong LSCs have made greater academic improvements over the years than those where the CPS administration has intervened. The LSC is a critical condition for academic achievement and lives of purpose and value."

For the time being, however, it seems democratic representation will have to wait.

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