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Chicago Public Schools Tue May 27 2014

I Ran for Local School Council and Maybe I Even Won!

On Monday, April 7, across Chicago, elections were held for Local School Council seats for all CPS elementary schools. I myself ran for a Community Representative seat for Prussing Elementary.

I might have even won!

But maybe the election didn't even happen.

cps_oldlogo.jpgMy neighborhood is usually fairly quiet, especially at night, except on typical fireworks nights, which are apparently the Fourth of July and Easter. Prussing is smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood, at the corner of Menard and Eastwood.

LSCs consist of 12 members: the school principal, and 11 people who are elected across two separate elections. (High school LSCs also include a student representative.) Community members -- which means adults who live in the school's boundaries (including non-citizen residents!) -- are eligible to vote for Parent Representatives and Community Representatives. Parent Representatives must have at least one child enrolled at the school. School staff can vote for Teacher and Non-Teacher Staff Representatives. A small number of people are staff members and also residents within the school's boundaries, which means they can vote in both elections.

Local media devoted a fair amount of ink to the elections when they occurred. To a limited extent, the LSC elections were seen as a proxy vote about people's opinions about Mayor Emanuel's education policies. But most schools didn't have contested elections. CPS even pushed back the filing deadline to try to encourage more people to run.

Prussing was an exception. There were seven candidates for six Parent Representative seats. There were three candidates for two Teacher Representative seats. I was one of three candidates for two Community Representative seats. Only the Non-Teacher Staff Representative seat was uncontested, with just one candidate.

I didn't hear anything about the results that Monday night. I still didn't hear anything that Tuesday. I actually called the school Wednesday morning, and found that I had received 21 votes. The other Community Representative candidates had received 20 and 13 votes respectively, meaning I had been elected.

The woman I spoke to noted that my term doesn't begin until July 1, but I should maybe still be at the next LSC meeting, scheduled for May 14. I said, sure, okay, I'll be there.

That was the only correspondence I had about the election. I didn't even know who the other people were who had been elected. The results were never subsequently posted on the school website or the CPS website. I had won, so I didn't see much reason to question anything. I figured I'd just show up May 14 and probably learn more then.

On May 14, I checked the school's website to make sure the meeting was at 7pm. This is when I found out that the meeting had been changed to May 19.

And so I went to the meeting on May 19. I was there at about 7:20pm due to an unmovable appointment. There was no printed agenda available and I had very little idea what was going on. But the current LSC pounded through some big ticket items -- notably including the 2014-15 school budget.

I was actually kind of taken aback that a $3,000,000 budget could be introduced and passed so quickly. I remember a Green Party teleconference once where there was a 15 minute argument about whether we could justify spending $10 a month for a dedicated fax number, and here this austere group of people were handling a $3,000,000 budget in about the same amount of time.

At some point the current LSC had to go into executive session because it was time to perform the job evaluation on the principal. This meant everyone not on the body had to leave the room, so out in the hall I went.

And it was then, out in the hall, talking to the assistant principal, that I learned that the election in which I had received my commanding 21 votes had been formally challenged.

Now, the challenge apparently had nothing to do with me, per se. Instead it had to do with the other ballot -- the faculty/staff ballot -- and apparent confusion and potential misinformation about how to cast ballots. It goes like this:

There were three candidates for two faculty positions, and one candidate for one non-faculty staff position.

Voters could cast up to two votes across those positions. That meant you could cast votes for two different faculty members, or one vote for faculty and also one vote for non-faculty staff, but not two votes for faculty and one vote for non-faculty staff. And, according to the formal challenge, the election judges supposedly may have told some faculty members that they could cast two votes for faculty and one vote for non-faculty staff, instead of just two votes. The ballots themselves very clearly said what a person could do -- cast no more than two votes -- but of course if you are told one thing, or if you think you are told one thing, you might not read the ballot closely.

Now, I have no idea what the judges said. I have no idea what people heard. I take no position on any of that. I don't know if this justifies a challenge or not.

What I do know is that the legal department of Chicago Public Schools determines that the election was conducted improperly. As a result of this, the result will be that the LSC will not be seated at all in July, and instead a completely new election will be held on Fall Report Card Day, which means the LSC won't meet at all until January 2015 at the earliest.

As it so happens, I'm unfortunately very well-versed in the Illinois Election Code. In its totality, the Illinois Election Code is statutory gibberish. I've talked to several lawyers over time who refuse to deal with it. It is a pathetic, anti-democratic pile of dreck that Illinois should be ashamed of.

And yet I can think of nothing in the Illinois Election Code that parallels the absurdity of declaring that a body does not even exist and cannot even meet for a full six months after its term is supposed to begin.

How will LSC functions be handled during that interim if the LSC technically doesn't exist? Apparently the CPS Central Office will be in charge of all such things. Say it with me now: Fabulous!

Now, this story isn't about me and my awe-inspiring 21 votes. It's not about whether or not there was some sort of problem with the election.

This is a story about bureaucracy.

I can rail against charter schools or say negative things about the mayor just like a lot of people who write words that get put on the Internet. I can talk about how great Karen Lewis is just like the next cherished Chicago journalist.

But here is the crux of the situation: Bureaucracies put bureaucracy first. And the reality is that Chicago Public Schools is a horrifically clunky bureaucracy, steeped in nonsensical inefficiencies, ultimately overseen by an unelected board who are themselves nothing more than hand-picked highly privileged bureaucrats. The system is failing its students because the system is more important than the students.

There are a lot of smart and dedicated administrators within CPS. But things are never truly going to turn around so long as everything is about CPS and not about the actual students.

At the LSC meeting, one of the items of business was to approve some document that apparently details the school's plan or vision for the next year. The actual vision statement for the school, though, was written by CPS -- because all schools apparently are supposed to share the same vision. Just as every student is different, every school is different, but the edicts from on high are held to be universal truths -- truths which naturally keep shifting every couple of years as the Mayor determines that he needs a different CEO to try and keep the teachers in line.

I ran for LSC because my son was born last year. Assuming we're in the same place, Prussing would be his school. I think it's important to engage early, both to learn the lay of the land, and also to help be a part of making the school as excellent as possible when the time comes for him to walk through that door.

I also ran because I think the mayor's handling of school policy is atrocious and this is a way I found where I might be able to make a difference. (And I think my saying as much on my candidate statement is the reason I received as many votes as I did.)

This bizarre fallout though -- maybe I'm elected and maybe I'm not and so maybe it all happens again in November -- has really reaffirmed for me why I ran and why it is important to be on a body like this. Our schools are under assault from external right-wing and corporate interests, but they are also under internal assault from the cancer of excessive bureaucracy. Local School Councils, because they are democratic bodies, tend to be populated with people who are less likely to be privileged bureaucrats and more likely to be people who elevate students above process, not the other way around.

Teachers have been speaking out for a long time. More recently, some CPS principals are speaking out as well. The LSCs are in a prime position to evaluate what's going on and support the people who are really trying to do the right thing for our children without blithely following the tenets of bureaucracy.

I think the Prussing LSC is the right place for me to be. Maybe some time soon I'll find out if I actually got elected.

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Shylo / May 27, 2014 7:30 PM

The weird instructions didn't just happen at Prussing, unfortunately. I voted at my local school and got similarly wonky verbal instructions which contradicted the written ones. I mentioned this and got a shrug. I was one of fewer than 10 community members to vote.

Getting non-parent community members to care about CPS neighborhood schools is crucial, but *shrug.*

Matt Maldre / June 1, 2014 9:15 AM

We need more people like you, Phil, on school boards.

JoAnn / June 2, 2014 8:06 AM

How sad. Teachers I know consistently say CPS is not about the students at all. Money, power, greed, etc has replaced the focus on our kids education. Taking small steps to be heard like you are doing is a beginning. Thank you for trying to take on this monstrous task of chipping away at this bureaucratic maze.

Nancy Wade / June 2, 2014 12:08 PM

CPS doesn't make it easy to serve on an LSC, despite their cheery propaganda urging people to do so. All the more reason to fight the power and make the attempt, as you have done. I look forward to the continuing saga from you.

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