I went to elementary school before Local School Councils existed. I was a CPS student. My mother was a CPS clerk who retired during the Arne Duncan years. My grandmother, a secretary at the CPS District 3 office, started as a Greeley Elementary volunteer in 1971.
Chicago Public Schools, and how it has changed over my lifetime, is not a mystery to me.
When my own two children entered their neighborhood school, I was determined that, in spite of my full-time job, ongoing health issues, and my youngest’s special needs, that I would be an involved parent. A parent who cared about not just her own kids, but the kids of the entire school. A parent who would play an active and engaged role in her kids’ education and the school system that raised her. The kind of parent CPS is always encouraging to run for its school councils.
Local School Councils, for the unfamiliar, are governing bodies at each school made up of parents, teachers, and community representatives. At some schools, they deliver critical input on budgeting and principal selection. At others, they are merely a rubber stamp for the principal. At still others, there are persistent vacancies.
My background and knowledge of schools, combined with having worked at an educational publisher and my experience in finance and HR, led me to pursue a role on the Local School Council. I am in a well-resourced neighborhood school, and our LSC doesn’t have a lot of vacancies. But I ran as a parent representative and got a spot with 28 votes (the second time, I was the highest-vote getter for parent reps with 51.) LSC elections are held on report card pickup day every two years. At our school, which has 570 students and where 90% of parents attend report card day, the highest vote count for any candidate was in the 50s.
Once I was on the school LSC, I set time aside to read up on things that would be on the agenda so I could be informed on the decisions I would cast a vote on. I came prepared to each meeting. I asked questions. I treated it with the attention I felt it deserved. It astounded me that some members of the LSC did not feel the same way – finding it dry, ineffective, and boring.
I started asking questions about the LSC Advisory Board that was billed as a link between parents and community members like me and senior district staff and school board members. Every LSC member in Chicago is invited to vote on advisory board membership every two years with no explanation of what the board does, or why – just a couple of lines in the Illinois School Code and a rarely updated website. Six of its members are elected and nine are appointed, though it was not entirely clear by whom or via what process.
I had questions about this body, and I decided to run in order to get the answers. I won a spot in April representing the “Northwest Region” on my second try.
It was not the Golden Ticket to Wonka’s factory, but instead a dry, monthly meeting “facilitated” by the school district office charged with overseeing Local School Councils. It was in a gym at a regional office on West Washington Street. At my first meeting, a representative from the central office was quick to let LSC members know they only had to do the minimum that the law requires.
But … why didn’t they WANT to do more, the way the parent LSC reps want to do more? Why did they WANT to continue to appoint the same chair for 20 years instead of hearing fresh voices? What positive changes could this group really make? I had more questions.
They weren’t answered through the channels of well, asking – again, and again, in person, and via email. I decided to take a risk on the newly appointed Board of Education and ask them.
I took the day off work in November to address the Board. I brought handouts containing my questions (later published online here). The board didn’t have answers, either.
When the board meeting paused for a recess and attendees poured into the hallway, the director of the Office of LSC Relations was waiting for me, clearly offended that I had brought my questions to the Board.
In that moment what resonated with me most was that he was being paid to be there, and I was not. I left that conversation feeling punished for speaking up, for trying to do better, for shining a light on an opportunity that is being wasted. Board members asked me if I was OK after witnessing the treatment I received in that hallway.
I still have not received any follow up communication or answers to my questions from the office that handles Local School Councils, or the school board, or CPS administrators. But this week leaders touted the 30th anniversary of Chicago’s Local School Councils with a kickoff event encouraging parents to run in the next round of elections.
I thought hard about the emails from Dr. Janice Jackson about celebrating the LSC election kickoff. I thought about riding out the year but not running for re-election. Then I calculated the value of my time. My evenings, my reading time, my commitment.
I resigned from both councils. I checked the advisory board’s website this week and it has finally been updated from 2017, and is displaying a blank line for the Northwest Region where my name would have been.
I’m happy to not run for re-election, or worry about getting to inconveniently located meetings. I’m happy to be free of my self-imposed stress of trying to make things better. I’m happy to be free.
But I’m not happy that I didn’t make a difference, and that LSC members across the city are trying to be heard but instead being ignored. I’m not happy that something that seems so easy has been made so difficult by the school district. And I’m not happy that I can’t in good faith encourage others to run for their Local School Council.
Maggie Baran is a Chicago Public Schools parent. Until she stepped down in December, she was a representative of a Local School Council and a districtwide Local School Council advisory board.