A student voices his frustration to King College Prep's local school council chair Kwesi Kuntu outside the school in May. Credit: Pat Nabong

By Emmanuel Camarillo and Hannah Hayes

On a spring afternoon inside the cafeteria of South Loop Elementary School, parents filled the small lunch tables for a local school council meeting. Before official business began, Jason Easterly, a longtime member, stood up and abruptly resigned his post.

Days before the meeting, outrage over the LSC’s attempt to renew principal Tara Shelton’s contract had escalated to the point where Easterly’s home address had been posted on Twitter. “I can’t guarantee the safety of my family anymore,” he said. “As such, I am resigning as a member of this LSC.”

It was a dramatic moment in the controversy over Shelton’s contract, which the LSC sought to renew in her third year rather than the customary fourth. The situation in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood was already volatile: The district announced in April that nearby National Teachers Academy would close and be converted into a high school, while younger NTA students would be moved to South Loop Elementary by fall 2019. Some NTA parents contended that the early contract renewal was meant to exclude their voices from the principal selection process.

But did the LSC’s actions amount to a violation of law? And if so, whose responsibility is it to police this situation? It’s a murky area for Chicago’s local school councils, a unique form of local governance under which elected volunteer boards choose principals and make budget decisions at many CPS schools. It calls into question whether the structure—which was meant to give local communities more control over their schools—is accomplishing what it set out to do.

When the state passed the Chicago School Reform Act in 1989, creating the LSC system, there was a lot of energy in the community for school reform. Mayor Harold Washington had galvanized Chicagoans into a citywide summit on the issue, and the first LSC elections were incredibly popular, with 227,262 Chicagoans voting on 17,256 candidates. The Reform Act had included public and private funding to recruit candidates and train them.

According to Pauline Lipman, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has followed and written about LSCs since their inception, Chicago’s LSCs collectively represent “the largest elected body of people of color of any elected body in the country.” However, Lipman says that LSCs “never fully reached their full potential because they never had the support they need. [Those serving on a council should get time off work to go to educational conferences, have professional development—they’re making important decisions.

Enthusiasm for LSCs has waned over the years. Although statistics for the most recent election are not yet available, in 2016 only 73,369 people voted, and 395 out of 514 schools didn’t have enough candidates to form a full council. As participation and funding has decreased, it has become harder to stick to the rules, current and former LSC members say.

“I’ll be honest, sometimes I didn’t remember what the rules were,” said a former parent representative at a Bridgeport elementary school who asked not to be named. “One time we got in trouble because an [Office of] LSC Relations representative came by our meeting.”

The LSC had failed to post the meeting’s agenda on the school’s entryway, and the doors were locked, both violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act, which LSCs are supposed to follow. “So he came in there and really let us have it,” said the ex-LSC member. “He pretty much declared our meeting invalid.”

The official just happened to stop by that meeting. “There’s not as many as there used to be, so they’re not going to as many LSC meetings,” the former LSC member said. In 2014, budget records show that the office had 20 employees, but by 2018 that number had been reduced to 12.

A CPS representative can steer a meeting in the right direction, but according to the former Bridgeport LSC member, a former science teacher and now education activist, LSCs usually aren’t penalized for those violations. “I have not heard of any LSCs being punished or reprimanded. I have never heard of that,” she said.

Then there’s the matter of whether an LSC has really crossed the line or not. In the case of South Loop Elementary School, though state statutes say that LSCs should work on contract renewals in a principal’s fourth year at the school, nothing in the law prohibits an LSC from renewing it earlier. Since the LSC ultimately withdrew its motion to renew the contract early, however, the question was never resolved. (CPS officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how often LSCs have been found to have violated rules or what happens if they do.)

That doesn’t stop a school’s community members from speaking up when they think there’s a miscarriage of justice. At the April meeting, one NTA parent told the LSC she “was confused and hurt” when she heard contract talks were already under way.

Victoria Dietrich, who attended South Loop Elementary as a child, said, “People should know why the principal evaluation process was accelerated,” adding that “moves like that are going to look suspicious because it’s an election year.” Though the LSC was never reprimanded for the contract renewal, the South Loop/NTA merger remains under scrutiny. A group of NTA parents filed suit this month to stop it, alleging that the school district based its decision on racially discriminatory metrics.

Several current and former LSC members point to training as a main issue for LSCs. According to Jill Wohl, founding board member of grassroots education group Raise Your Hand and a former LSC member, funding for training “has almost all but evaporated” in recent years.

According to its website, CPS offers in-person sessions for a couple of the nine LSC trainings required, and all are available online. New LSC members (elected in April) have until December to complete training.

Cassandra Chandler, a former LSC parent representative at King College Prep, said CPS needs to be more proactive. “They leave it up to each individual to figure out how to complete the trainings,” she said. “There’s not a way to enforce that people complete those trainings.”

Early this year, King’s LSC voted not to extend its principal’s contract, and parents alleged that it was done without community input. Chandler became disillusioned with her fellow LSC members, calling their actions “underhanded.” So she went to the Office of LSC Relations to check whether they had completed their training. According to Chandler, the official told her “if somebody doesn’t complete all of the training there are really no repercussions for that.” However, another group of parents filed a Freedom of Information request and discovered that half of the LSC members had not completed all of their training, according to newly elected parent representative Natasha Erskine. The office’s website states that LSC members may be removed by the Chicago Board of Education if they haven’t completed training—but, Wohl said, if the district purged LSC members for not complying with training, “hardly anyone would be left standing.”

CPS also did not respond to questions on how many LSC members have completed training or whether there are any consequences for LSC members who fail to complete it.

At King, as was the case at South Loop Elementary, the LSC didn’t technically violate any rules; the council posted notice of its meeting to vote on the principal’s contract within the required time limit, although it was during CPS’s winter break. “While it wasn’t an issue of the LSC doing things illegally, many parents felt the LSC could have been more transparent,” said Marcellus Moore, the community representative at the time.

In several meetings that followed, the LSC chair refused to put the principal vote back on the agenda despite student protests and requests from other LSC members to reconsider, and frequently put public comment last, which critics saw as an attempt to quash their voices. The controversy attracted the attention of Guillermo Montes de Oca, the director of CPS’s Office of LSC Relations, who attended a meeting in May. De Oca told the frustrated crowd that it was not within his office’s authority to interfere in LSC business, as nothing it had done was illegal. “We recommended they give it [the decision] to the new council, but they said no thank you,” said Montes de Oca.

While conflicts within schools, LSCs, and the communities they represent are not rare, they’re not as common as people might think. “A well-functioning LSC is really boring, and that’s why they don’t make the news,” says Michael Scott, the community representative at Murray Language Academy, a magnet school in Hyde Park.

Scott, who was also an LSC chair at William H. Ray Elementary school when he served as a parent representative, says the key to functioning well is broadening community participation. He points to the principal selection process at Ray in 2008 when the longtime principal retired. “We had 21 parents and teachers on that committee, and while the LSC ultimately made the decision, the process was driven by a much larger group.”

But when community members don’t believe their concerns are being taken seriously, as was the case at King College Prep, they have minimal recourse apart from showing up at the polls and voting those LSC members out. That’s what happened at King this April. There all but one member was replaced, but it was already too late for supporters of the principal who’d been voted out, since control remains in the hands of the old LSC’s members until their terms expire in July.

Caleb Mitchell, a junior at King, spoke passionately to de Monrwa Oca after one of the LSC’s many contentious meetings: “Why can’t you do something? This is so wrong!”

“This is democracy,” Montes de Oca explained. “You voted them in and you trusted them with this decision. Then when you don’t like what they do, you vote them out. And that’s what you did.”

This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.