When Englewood community organizer Erica Nanton was out of a job and struggling a few months ago, she didn’t think she would be able to run for the Local School Council at Southside Occupational Academy. Southside is an Englewood school that teaches job skills to 16- to 21-year-old students with special needs. 

“I thought, ‘How do you [run a campaign] when you’re poor?’” she said. “It’s all these things that in your mind say, ‘I’m not the person,’ even though you deeply care, even though what you’re struggling with is probably directly connected with the very things you want to fight and why you want to run.”

Nanton was not the only person apprehensive of running. This year, more than half of the Local School Councils across the city lacked enough candidates to fill each organization’s 12 seats. Full councils comprise the principal, six parents, two community members, two teachers, and one non-teacher staff. High school councils add a student representative.

As new council members commence their two-year terms, with some starting to meet this week, many will have to address the rampant vacancies. One of their first jobs is recruiting people to fill parent and community member vacancies. They will also have to ensure that enough council members are present at meetings in order to vote on key decisions.

When there are vacancies for teacher, non-teacher staff, and student seats, the district Board of Education receives nominations from advisory polls taken by school staff and students. Last week, the board appointed people to fill those seats. When there are vacancies for parent and community member seats, the newly elected council members must handle the appointments. Across the district, roughly 560 parent and community member vacancies remain.

In a district without an elected school board, elected Local School Councils are critical channels through which residents can directly impact their schools. Each council evaluates and selects the principal, approves the school’s budget, and signs off on the two-year school improvement plan. The councils are also some of the most inclusive elected bodies in the city—there are no citizenship or education requirements for parent and community members.

Rod Wilson is a CPS-certified Local School Council instructor who travels around the city to train council members through the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a community organizing group. He said that “when councils were first created, there were record numbers of people signing up.” According to data from CPS collected by EdWeek, 17,096 candidates ran for roughly 5,940 seats in the first year of council elections in 1989. Now, nearly 30 years later, the situation is much different.

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Chalkbeat mapped out parent and community council vacancies by school network. The West Side (Network 5) and the far South Side (Networks 12 and 13) reported the largest percentage of schools with three or more council vacancies.

Source: Chicago Public Schools

At other schools, council races can get heated. Parents at King College Prep in Kenwood clashed over choosing a new principal, and the campaign for council seats became competitive. (Seven parents and six community members ran this year.) However, many other schools’ councils see much less involvement.

Parent and Community Member Vacancies

Elaine Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, has conducted research that found that when councils first emerged, they were more likely to drive effective change in higher-income communities compared to those in lower-income communities. In lower-income communities, families can experience stress from poor healthcare, unstable employment, and security concerns, she said. And, “if you have many families that are under stress and if you don’t have strong local organizations, it can be more difficult to bring people together around supporting schools.”

Similar reasons may help drive the pattern of council vacancies across the city.

When you have communities that are severely underfunded, vacancies are a reflection of that,” said Nanton. “A lot of active community members already have a job and family obligations. If they don’t have a clear idea of what it really means to run a council campaign, they could assume it’s a huge life choice that affects their family and job.”

Nanton initially thought so. She had decided to run for her council but called a friend two days before the election saying that she wanted to back out.

“I was so new to the process, I didn’t know if I was doing it right,” she said.

She ended up winning the most votes of all the candidates and being elected as a community member on the council for Southside. She said that while council elections in certain schools might require high-dollar campaigns, hers didn’t.

“I had $2, and I was able to get a poster board and write, ‘vote for me’ on it,” she said. “It ended up not being about how much money I had. It ended up being about how much I was able to listen and talk to the parents.”

Wilson, the LSC trainer, said that there might be the pattern of vacancies because elections are not promoted enough elections in communities.  To recruit for the council seats, he said that principals often put up fliers, but more advertising should be done outside of schools.

“Whether you go into schools or not, you need to know about elections if you’re going to be a community representative,” he said.

Under Illinois School Code, councils must publicize elections within the attendance boundaries of the school, by distributing notices to students and using “such other means as it deems necessary to maximize the involvement of all eligible voters.” CPS’ council election guide contains a mandatory letter that the council must distribute to all school staff and send home with the students.

It is unclear what happens to councils that don’t follow these requirements.

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When Local School Councils don’t fill their seats, they can face difficulties carrying out core responsibilities. According to the Illinois School Code, councils require a quorum of seven members to, for example, vote on budget transfers.

According to CPS election results, all the newly elected councils have at least seven members. But the vacancy list reveals that many councils have up to five open positions, and so they are on the cusp of dropping below quorum. For those schools, if a few members drop out during the two-year term or miss meetings, then the council would be unable to carry out some functions. Those councils would still be able to appoint new members or reschedule meetings, but would lag in carrying out budget transfers.

Cal Thixton has served on the council of Sabin Elementary, a magnet school in Wicker Park that serves 541 students, for six years and just retired from it. He said that Sabin’s council has continuously had parent vacancies and the parents that do serve on the council often don’t show up to meetings.

“We’re not a neighborhood school, so every parent that’s coming is traveling,” he said.

As new council members recruit to fill vacancies, they also juggle completing mandatory training that teaches them how to read budgets and carry out other core responsibilities. Outside of in-person trainings, which many council members are not attending, CPS offers online training modules.

Thixton said that new council members face a pile of information.

“I’ve always said that councils are sort of night school for the grown-ups,” he said, “because most people have no idea what’s involved in running the school.”