The council at Roosevelt High School followed all the rules last year when they hired two security guards to help keep the peace. They posted the position, solicited applications from a variety of candidates, whittled their choices to three, and eventually selected two nearby residents, to be paid from a pool of discretionary antipoverty funds.
Then, in August, the rules changed. That’s when school board general superintendent Ted Kimbrough released an ultimatum: 151 security guards (including the two at Roosevelt) would be fired and 91 higher-paid police officers hired.
The Roosevelt school council was stunned.
“We have nothing against the new police officers–in fact, we welcome them–but we want our security guards back,” says Mary Kelly, chairman of the northwest-side school’s council. “It’s a matter of safety and local control. The police officers don’t know the school as well as the old security guards did. We had hired those security guards. There’s a principle at stake: local school councils should be able to hire their own security guards.”
The dispute is yet another example of growing struggle between central-office administrators and school activists over how much power local councils–those elected boards of parents, community representatives, teachers, and principals–can exercise in this age of “reform.”
Activists insist that Kimbrough overstepped his bounds by hiring the police without contacting the local councils first. They say the hirings have created a bureaucratic snafu in which the school system is spending more money for fewer security personnel.
“The superintendent is telling local schools how to spend their money, and that’s not right,” says Coretta McFerren, a leader of the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, a coalition of reform activists and business leaders. “I think it’s wrong and maybe illegal.”
Not so, Kimbrough and his allies counter, adding that the dismissals were governed by seniority rules in the security guards’ union contracts.
“The decision as to which security guards were fired and which guards remained was out of our hands,” says Marj Halperin, Kimbrough’s press secretary. “The union contract mandates a policy of last hired, first fired. We’re sorry some schools lost security guards they really liked. But beyond that you have to look at the larger picture. We have replaced untrained guards with armed, uniformed police officers. I don’t see how anyone can say that won’t be a better deterrent against crime.”
The problem is rooted in efforts by the city to stifle an increase in violent crime at local schools. At a press conference last February–about the same time Roosevelt and some other schools were hiring guards–Kimbrough, police superintendent LeRoy Martin, and Mayor Daley vowed to assign at least 90 armed police officers to schools throughout the city. They dubbed their efforts “Operation SAFE.”
“It’s an excellent program,” Daley told reporters. “In the past schools could call the police department. Here, they’ll be in the schools, and that’s the key.”
The new plan would cost $4.8 million out of the board’s general revenues. To come up with the money, Kimbrough had to fire security guards, most of whom were also paid out of general funds. But because of the last-hired first-fired rule, even those security guards whose salaries came from state antipoverty funds were affected. The guards at Roosevelt were fired, and guards with more seniority were transferred from other schools to fill their vacancies.
So far at least 100 police officers have been assigned to specific schools; by October, 50 more are to be assigned. “We’ve also assigned 46 mobile units to the schools,” says Halperin. “They will become part of a tactical squad dedicated to school matters. They won’t go chasing a robbery in the Loop. Their jobs will be in the schools.”
The Roosevelt council, though, had different ideas about how to address the crime-in-the-schools problem. “We needed someone who could act like a truant officer more than a police officer,” Kelly says. “We didn’t necessarily want someone to go out and make arrests. We wanted someone to be there to break up fights or to drag kids out of the washroom and make them go to class. We also wanted someone who knew our kids and who knew our neighborhood.”
After some debate, the Roosevelt council decided to spend roughly $40,000 of its $330,000 in state antipoverty funds on the two security guards.
Similarly, the council at the Nathan Davis Elementary School on the near southwest side hired John Kuranda (whose wife, Kathy, is chairman of the council) as its security guard.
“I grew up not too far from here and I was kind of a street kid myself,” says Kuranda, whose children attend Davis. “I know how to talk to kids. I understand that a lot of them need a push in the right direction. They don’t get it at home. I’m not going to walk into a fight where there are guns. But maybe I can intervene before the guns come out so that we prevent the fight from happening. At least I can keep the kids from wearing gang colors or recruiting in the school.”
Initially, Kuranda was pleased to hear that police officers would be assigned to the schools. “I said, ‘Great.’ We all felt that way. The way we saw it, we need all the help we can get.”
What the Davis school leaders didn’t know was that the new police officers were hired at his expense. All told, 151 of 445 security guards were dismissed; others were transferred to fill vacancies in different schools.
“Mr. Kimbrough made a decision he felt was in the best interest of the schools,” says Halperin. “He was meeting the need and demand for more security.”
But council members claim they should have had a say in the decision to employ police.
“I’m not arguing against police in the schools; I’m arguing about the fact that local councils were not part of the decision,” says James Deanes, president of the Parent Community Council, a coalition of school parents. “It was top-down, antireform politics. That kind of stuff was supposed to end with the reform law. But it’s happening all too many times with this superintendent.”
Other reformers are upset that the financially strapped school system is forced to pay for salaries that once came out of the police budget.
“The schools don’t have a lot of money to pay for these police,” says McFerren. “We’ve got some schools that had three monitors working with only one now. You tell me: how does that help the children?”
Activists also contend that Kimbrough’s directive is illegal because it treads on the authority of local councils.
“The Roosevelt council paid for those two security guards with money that the state law specifically states is under their control,” says Wendy Jo Harmston, an organizer for the North River Commission, which works with several school councils on the near-northwest side. “That’s what the reform law is all about–local control. The council worked hard on this decision. They complied with the law. They acted in the correct democratic manner. And then the central administration comes in and tells them who to hire. It’s frustrating.”
Harmston and others argue that local councils should determine how to meet their own school’s security needs.
“Many of these police officers arrive when school starts and leave when school ends,” says McFerren. “They don’t patrol the halls. And they aren’t accountable to the principal or the council. I don’t know who they are accountable to.”
Halperin argues that Kimbrough was well within his rights to hire the police officers.
“The local councils have to look out for their schools, that’s true; but the superintendent has to look out for the system as a whole,” says Halperin. “In individual schools I know there were some popular security guards who were replaced. And I know people are disappointed to see them go. I wish there was something we could do about that. But when you look at the total system, you will see that we’re better off. And the general superintendent’s job is to look out for the entire system.”
Most school officials hope anger over the dismissals will fade as the local councils and police cooperate and learn to work together. For the moment, however, that doesn’t look likely. Instead, the matter seems indicative of future power struggles, particularly if Kimbrough is forced to fire or transfer teachers.
“Kimbrough might not realize this, but the old days are gone; the councils aren’t going to put up with this stuff for long,” says Kuranda. “This thing is bigger than board politics. About two weeks ago we had a shooting in the park across the street from the school. It grew out of one of those long-standing disputes between two youths. In the end, a 19-year-old put a gun to the head of a 15-year-old and shot him dead.
“The park’s not on school property, but I used to patrol it and I know most of the kids who hang out there. I’m not saying that shooting wouldn’t have happened if I was on the job. I don’t know if I could have stopped it. I just wish I was there to try.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.