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Engagement low at some schools, while others used issue to organize, reinvigorate their LSC

This summer’s Local School Council (LSC) votes on the retention of School Resource Officers (SROs) highlighted the good, the bad and the ugly of how LSCs across the city operate.

LSC’s were created 30 years ago, under the Harold Washington administration, after a long citywide fight to provide parent and community voice in school governance. From the onset, LSCs were empowered to make all the important decisions in a school. But, soon after Richard M. Daley took office in 1989, he began to disenfranchise LSCs.

Daley removed most decision-making authority from schools on “probation” and created Advisory LSCs that allowed CPS to appoint the councils at alternative, small schools and all schools opened under Renaissance 2010. Daley also presided over an explosion of new charter and contract schools that do not have LSCs.

Disenfranchisement

Ironically, when Rahm Emanuel fought demands for an elected school board, he used LSCs as an excuse, claiming the councils are the “largest school governance democracy in the country.” But, like Daley, Emanuel failed to support LSCs and, as he boosted the number of charters and turnaround schools—and closed a record number of neighborhood schools—the number of fully empowered LSCs declined.

Lori Lightfoot and CPS pulled their own shenanigans last summer when, out of the blue, they directed LSCs to decide whether or not to retain police in their schools. LSC members were given a scant few weeks’ notice to make the historic decision—during summer months when many members were on vacation—and given ZERO information with which to make it. Many LSCs were unaware that police—SROs—worked in their schools, nor did they know anything about the decades-long CPS contract with the Chicago Police Department.

Since most CPS high schools are struggling with declining budgets, the SRO contract was presented as a much-needed “free” resource. Without this critical information, every LSC, according to CPS, voted last year to keep their SROs. But the district has no data to back up this claim.

Pressure on mayor grows

This year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests across the world, pressure grew on CPS and the mayor to remove police from schools and to instead invest policing funds in social workers, counselors and restorative justice programs. The CPS Board narrowly rejected those demands in July, and Lightfoot doubled down on the idea that the decision should be left “up to the LSCs.”

Under the banner of #PoliceFreeSchools, the movement, led by CPS youth, jumped into action, sharing research and personal experiences about police in schools and staging multiple protests, some at the homes of CPS board members. The CTU and the LSCs 4 All Coalition held trainings on the role of LSCs in school safety.

We showed hundreds of LSC members how to analyze school budgets in order to evaluate how much money is being spent on resources that help and support students—versus what is spent on security—and how to evaluate the principal’s performance when it comes to ensuring a safe and supportive student environment. CTU members organized to get their LSCs to vote to remove the SROs, and in the end, 17 schools voted to remove police officers and 54 voted to keep them.

Today, high-functioning LSCs have low or zero vacancies, and the members have been trained properly to oversee the budget and the Continuous Improvement Work Plan (CWIP). They implement new school policies, seriously evaluate the principal each year and engage parents, community reps, school staff and students. Too many schools, however, do not have fully empowered and engaged LSC members, especially at the high school level.

Because of the pandemic, LSCs now are holding meetings online. This has allowed for an unprecedented amount of public participation in meetings—and has exposed just how dysfunctional and undemocratic many of them are. Some votes were taken without a quorum or in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. At some meetings, public participation was cut off or limited and, at others, meetings were not posted with sufficient notice.

The bright side

The bright side of this exposure is a rejuvenated interest in LSCs. The bi-annual election was supposed to take place at April’s report card pickup but because of the school shutdown, it has been moved to November. The new candidate deadline is Oct. 2, which allows time for additional candidates to submit applications.

Schools that feel their staff, students, parents and community members did not have enough information or voice in the SRO vote can organize to find candidates who will hold school administrators more accountable and ensure a full and open debate in the future. According to CPS, an LSC can vote to remove SROs at any time.

Student safety and discipline are an important function of school governance and directly related to the school’s budget, which LSCs must approve. That means the councils have a say over staffing for counselors, social workers, restorative justice coaches and trauma-informed practices—things that actually make students feel safe at school and can help end the school-to-prison pipeline.

Most importantly, fully empowered LSCs have the authority to hire and fire the principal, so it is imperative that they effectively govern their schools, collect data and provide principals with honest annual evaluations.

While we lost the SRO vote this year at the August CPS Board meeting, we have begun some incredibly important work. CTU runs monthly LSC trainings with the LSCs 4 All Coalition. CTU members from the Summer Organizing Institute (SOI) launched a new committee on cops in schools, and we are busy training and activating our PPLCs, which are an LSC advisory committee chaired by the two LSC teacher reps.

Please consider running for the LSC this fall. Each LSC has two teacher reps and one non-teacher position, which can be filled by any staff member in the building who is not a certified teacher. Our Union has made some strong alliances with staff, parents and community members at schools across the city. We have the power to take back our LSCs and run schools in a way that best serves and supports all of our students.

Sarah Rothschild is a policy analyst at the CTU.