Who's In Charge

New Local School Council members face challenging first task: filling council vacancies

PHOTO: Erica Nanton
Erica Nanton campaigning for her Local School Council election

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.”

Local School Councils

Local School Councils are a big deal. But getting new members trained is proving difficult.

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four Local School Council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern some 500-plus of its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that (Local School Councils are) that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

to the races

Jia Lee, a special education teacher and union gadfly, wants to be New York’s next lieutenant governor

Earth School teacher Jia Lee is running for New York lt. governor. An advocate against high-stakes testing, she spoke about the issue in 2015 before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

With 18 years in the classroom, special education teacher Jia Lee has seen a lot of change. Now, she wants to be the one who makes it.

Lee is running for lieutenant governor on the Green Party ticket, facing off against the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul and a Republican challenger, Julie Killian, in the November general election.

Even during an election cycle that has propelled underdog candidates closer to office, Lee knows her odds of victory are long. But that hasn’t stopped her before. In 2016, Lee challenged United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in a bid for the union’s top post. She lost but managed to garner more than 20 percent of the vote as part of the MORE caucus — an opposition party that calls itself the Movement of Rank and File Educators and champions pocketbook issues such as pay, but also social justice causes.  

When she’s not teaching fourth and fifth grades at Earth School in the East Village, campaigning, or agitating within the union, Lee is active in the opt-out movement that protests high-stakes standardized tests — an issue that she once testified about before Congress.

Lee joins a wave of teachers across the country who have taken their classroom frustrations to the campaign trail in states far less blue than New York, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. Closer to home, the 2016 teacher of the year could be heading to Congress. Here’s what Lee thinks is driving their activism and what she’d like to change in education policy in New York.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for lieutenant governor?

I’m running — and with the Green party specifically — because I feel as though policies in education have been largely driven by corporate reformers, who have direct ties with the Democratic party. I see it as incredibly problematic when you have this private/public kind of partnership, especially in government, where money or for-profits are driving decisions in our state. And the Green party is completely untethered to any of that.

I’m realistic about the power of the Green party because of the way our electoral process works in New York state. I believe I’m part of building a more grassroots, bottom-up movement that’s not just talking about the issues that are problematic but highlighting the root causes of it — and that’s the system and the rules that were designed by people in power. So it makes it very difficult for regular people, working people to engage in the system.

How would education policy change if you’re elected?

Currently the way decisions are made, it’s a pyramid structure. It’s very top-down, and my idea is to kind of invert that pyramid and create structures so there’s greater voice coming up from the bottom. How else are you going to know what policies need to be put in place if we don’t know what the needs are really?

Let’s say there’s an education gap or an opportunity gap happening. The analysis — over why that problem is — is in large part determined by people in power. So their solutions have always been to create consequences and rewards like the teacher evaluation system and the accountability system around high-stakes testing. It’s this really test-and-punish system. But if you go to any school that’s struggling, you’ll find that a lot of the answers and problem-solving can come from the actual community.

That sounds hard to do at scale. What kinds of systemic or structural changes could be implemented to make that a reality?

One, we have mayoral control, and that wasn’t always the case in New York City. The largest five school districts in New York State, if you look at them, a lot of them have either centralized control where the elected school boards have been dissolved, democratic spaces were dissolved. It’s a pattern across the country, where centralized control takes hold, and then you have less voice coming up from people.

And then I do believe that our locally elected officials — senators, assembly members —  they’re also taking big contributions from education reform groups, charters. And that, in large part, incentivizes the decisions that happen at the local level. We have to push forward rules about campaign finance, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change — the culture of our governing system.

What do you hope to accomplish with your candidacy, even if you don’t win?

I’m definitely very clear about the odds. But at the same time, I’m very hopeful about this process and this work. This candidacy is about really highlighting the process for a lot of people who maybe even never knew who our current lt. governor was, and now they know. That position has, in large part, been kind of invisible in our state, and maybe we’ve brought that to light. We’re electing people into positions of power in our state, and we’re starting to question them, developing ideas around what needs to change in order for a greater number of people to feel like they had a say, and not feeling like they have to compromise one way or another.

Another big push for me in this campaign is to highlight our issues. The root cause of poverty or all these societal ills is the income gap. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you must have worked harder.’ Or, ‘You must deserve your incredible wealth because of who you are.’ No. Everyone deserves to have basic quality of life.

We’re in a moment of great teacher activism across the country. What do teachers want? What is driving this?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen policies that strip our school budgets — so that places a greater burden on teachers. We actually spend a lot of our own personal money — people sometimes don’t realize how much — just to provide basic things like paper, pencils. And in some dire situations — I’ve actually been in this place — we’re actually buying clothes for students or toiletry items. I’ve had friends in New York City whose custodians have said that budgets have been slashed so much that they can only buy a certain number of garbage bags or paper towels for the bathroom. So teachers now in some schools put toilet paper on the supply lists and even purchase it themselves. That’s one phase of it.

And then another one is this incredible, ridiculous accountability system put in place while these budget cuts are happening —  asking teachers and students and administrators to jump really, really high — without any resources.

Teachers tend to be nurturers and people who sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen tons of stories in the media about the kinds of things teachers do above and beyond. It just shouldn’t be that way. The burden being placed on teachers is untenable.

What do you see as the value of unions? What do you see as reasonable criticisms of them?

Without unions, working people on the whole, we’ll have no space to collectively organize around working conditions. For us as educators, that has a direct impact on our students’ learning conditions. It’s a ripple effect. It affects our communities. Without our unions, we’re not able to protect and support our communities — let alone our own livelihoods.

I believe that our union needs greater internal democracy, that negotiations with the government — with the city or at the larger level — needs to have greater transparency and input from its constituents. Process matters within our union.

So far UFT membership has remained strong in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned mandatory union dues. How do you think the decision will play out here moving forward?

Being actively engaged in your union is like a gym membership. It’s only as powerful as how engaged members are in the process. So while we might have the roster — a lot of people [who] stayed on as union members — how much do they really feel engaged in decision-making at the policy level?

Collecting dues makes it so that our union leadership can have the finances to continue to operate in the way that they have and not to incentivize them to really listen to members. I’m concerned that unless there is greater engagement, nothing is really going to change, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts in our state. It’s not as visible as in red states, where they’ve had these huge cuts that impacted everyone, and everyone came around to the same conclusion that they had to fight for just their basic rights. Whereas here, it’s very nuanced. So it’s a slow death, I would say, at the rate that we’re going.

How has teaching prepared you for the campaign trail? Have you taken any campaign lessons into the classroom?

I have to say, being part of a school community that’s very collaborative and also being able to foster discussion practices with my students and teaching them how to have debates, be able to present their ideas —  in those very concrete ways, it’s prepared me for this. I feel like a lot of teachers could do this. It’s just the work of teaching takes up a lot of our time and energy and passion.

New York City’s elite specialized high schools enroll very few black and Hispanic students. Critics trace the segregation back to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria. What do you think of  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the exam?

I have very strong feelings that the SHSAT is a gatekeeper. The fact that we as a city can say there are elite schools for a few, and that everyone else is stuck with mediocre or less-than schools, is to me completely wrong. We should, as a city, be able to say that all of our schools provide the kind of education that we want our kids to have. If there is such a high demand for a specialized high school that has specific kinds of programming, then we need to find ways to provide more of them — even in each borough or each community if necessary. We’re creating a resource that seems to be very scarce, and in education, why are we doing that?