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As Powerful School Councils Fire Principals, Parents Urged to Step Up

By Patty Wetli | February 3, 2016 8:20am
 LSC meetings typically fail to draw a single member of the public.
LSC meetings typically fail to draw a single member of the public.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

ALBANY PARK — With the contract renewal of the school's principal hanging in the balance, more than 100 people turned out for last month's Local School Council meeting at Edison Regional Gifted Center.

"I want you to remember this energy ... when the next LSC meeting comes around," Principal Donna Oberhardt told the gathering of parents and community members just moments before she was, in effect, fired.

Edison's recent standing-room crowd to the contrary, LSC meetings typically fail to draw a single member of the public. Indeed, many of the dozens who spoke in support of Oberhardt confessed they hadn't attended an LSC meeting in months, if ever.

With April's LSC elections on the horizon, it remains to be seen whether frustration with actions by councils at schools like Edison, where parents said they felt "blindsided" by Oberhardt's ouster, translates into renewed interest in LSCs.

"At most schools, parents don't go to LSC meetings and then when stuff like this happens they start to show up," one former LSC member posted to Facebook in response to DNAinfo Chicago's coverage of the turmoil at Edison, 4929 N. Sawyer Ave.

"When I was an LSC member I knew something up was up when the parking lot was full for a meeting," she added.

A current LSC chairwoman chimed in: "I send out a newsletter every month. I have also gone out at the playground at pickup to personally invite parents. Crickets.... I cannot tell you how disheartening the lack of involvement is."

Yet it was parents and community members who clamored for the creation of LSCs in order to have a seat at the table when it came to overseeing the city's schools.

The councils came into being with the passage of the Chicago School Reform Act in 1988, which gave LSCs responsibility for approving school budgets, developing and monitoring annual School Improvement Plans, and hiring and firing principals.

During the inaugural LSC elections, more than 17,000 candidates ran for approximately 6,000 seats, and 300,000 people voted.

By 2014, that number had dwindled to 83,000 voters, and the picture was even bleaker when it came to rustling up people to run for council seats. CPS was forced to extend the candidate application deadline when 86 schools couldn't attract a single parent to run for LSC.

In the years since 1988, CPS was brought under mayoral control and public schools in general operate under an increasing number of state and federal mandates, arguably weakening the power of LSCs.

Speaking to Education Week in 2014, Dorothy Shipps, author of "School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000," noted that the Chicago School Reform Act had "said nothing about what the curriculum was going to be, what the qualifications for teaching were going to be, what the outcomes expected for kids were going to be."

In other words, Shipps said, the act had very little to do with reforming education.

If LSCs appear to be toothless in the face of policies such as per pupil budgeting, standardized testing or teacher evaluations, they do still wield the power of choosing a school's top administrator, and then determining whether to renew a principal's contract or not.

Just days before the contentious meeting at Edison, the LSC at Franklin Fine Arts Center similarly parted ways with its principal despite parents voicing their support. Nine of the LSC members at Franklin, 225 W. Evergreen Ave., abstained from voting in that instance, which essentially counted in the "no" column.

Last summer, Lane Tech's LSC was deadlocked over the hiring of a new principal, and members were so intractable after numerous votes, the final decision was handed off to CPS CEO Forrest Claypool.

The LSC at Gray Elementary,  3730 N. Laramie Ave., bucked CPS policy and insisted on hiring a principal who wasn't eligible for the job, then turned around a year later and dismissed the same person.

In response to members of the aforementioned school communities who felt their interests weren't being represented by their respective LSCs in these situations, one parent posted a simple solution to Facebook: "This is why people have to run, vote and be engaged." 

Calling LSCs the "last remaining scant sliver of democratic voice in CPS," another CPS parent urged her peers: "Show up folks. Educate yourself. Make your voice count."

LSC elections are slated for April 13 and 14; the new council terms, which last for two years, begin July 1.

Click here for the candidacy application form and additional information about the process. Completed applications are due by 3 p.m. March 4.

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