Judges were a no-show. Ballots were thrown out. Voters were turned away. These were just some of the problems in the election of one of the country’s largest democratic governing bodies: Chicago Public Schools’ Local School Councils (LSCs).
You might’ve heard of them when they were shoved into the spotlight this past summer, as pressure was placed on these twelve-member councils by the Board of Education to decide on the fate of police officers at their schools. This year, close to 6,000 seats at each of the 509 LSCs in the school district—including representation for parents, community members, teachers, non-teaching staff, and high school students—were up for grabs.
LSCs have purview over the principal’s contract, the school budget, and the school improvement plan. Council members serve two-year terms. There’s been a general decline in participation for LSC elections since its inception and this year was no different,with only 35,066 people voting, according to data released by the district.
Initially, the elections were scheduled to happen in April, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were pushed back to November. At several schools, the races were hotly contested, with more candidates running than seats available, and the elections became a focus for citywide advocacy groups and community organizations fighting for police-free schools. But for many school communities, the LSC elections were underpublicized and difficult for people to participate in even if they wanted to. These challenges reflected much larger issues at hand with urban education—disinvestment and consolidated power in the hands of a few.
“The lack of clear, timely, reliable information was really concerning,” said Natasha Erskine, a parent organizer with Raise Your Hand (RYH), a public education advocacy group for parents in Illinois. “Throughout the entire process, our team had to send letters to [the Office of Local School Council Relations (OLSCR)] to make changes for a better election.”
Despite the months of delay leading up to the November elections, information about how they would be conducted remained unclear. At the end of August, CPS announced that candidates would have to submit applications by October 2 expressing their intent to run. Candidate forums were scheduled to take place the same month, and elections would happen in mid-November for both elementary schools and high schools. Challenges pertaining to accessibility and transparency around the elections were nothing new, but they were exacerbated by the transition to virtual platforms, and several school communities were not equipped to handle the unique challenges of this year’s election.
Ahead of the election, most school websites did not have videos of their candidate forums posted or a full list of their candidate statements, making it hard for parents and community members to access the candidates running to represent their schools. The department in CPS tasked with assisting LSCs during the election process, the Office of Local School Council Relations, was unresponsive throughout the election process, according to Erskine. CPS said in a statement that communication regarding the election was disseminated through “a variety of channels” like social media and radio, in addition to biweekly meetings with LSCs and monthly directors’ meetings with LSC chairs about the election.
Election day came with its own problems. Elementary schools held in-person elections on November 18 and high schools held theirs on November 19. After safety concerns were raised by school communities around in-person elections, the district introduced a new vote-by-mail process strictly for parents that raised concerns about voter anonymity. There were also concerns about the deadline for mail-in ballots which was initially on election day but then was pushed back to November 30 after concerns were raised about mailing lags, Erskine said.
The official count for ballots didn’t happen until December 1, almost two weeks after election day. Election judges were expected to review and certify all ballots. But at Jones College Prep, a selective enrollment school in the South Loop, one of the judges never showed up. “The Office of Local School Council Relations ended up sending someone the next day,” said Erskine. “But because no one showed up the first day and there was no [immediate] response from [OLSCR], they didn’t get their official results until [December 3].”
There were also concerns about spoiled ballots as a result of unclear instructions on how to fill them out. At the December 16 Board of Education meeting, Peirce Elementary parent and LSC candidate Aisha Noble spoke during public comment about the seventy-five ballots that were discarded in their school election, most of which were from parents and community members. According to CPS, ballots are marked defective if they were not marked as instructed or if voters voted for more than the allotted candidates for that ballot. Mail-in ballots were marked defective if the postmark was after the deadline or if they didn’t have a valid return address, which was used to validate the ballot against their master list.
On December 30, OLSCR informed the Peirce LSC candidates that a recount will be granted in response to the petition, despite the hearing officer’s recommendation to do an entirely new election for parents and community members. It is not clear if the seventy-five defective ballots will be included in the recount. The recount will take place on January 5.
“We had to rely on the Chicago Lawyers Committee [for Civil Rights] for help during the election,” said Erskine. “Anything that did go right during the process, came from people, community, and the schools coming together to figure it out.”
Candidates were given two days to file post-election challenges if they wanted to appeal the results of their election. CPS’s law department requires challengers to file a petition with signatures from five eligible voters. Then the department would determine if it required a hearing facilitated by a Board-appointed officer, who would make a recommended decision to the Chief Executive Officer, Janice Jackson.
The process was murkier for community candidate Maira Khwaja at Hyde Park Academy, the local high school for parts of Woodlawn and South Shore, who was challenged on the basis that she didn’t live in the voting district, despite living less than two miles from the school. “I was taken aback when I received a call from a special investigator [from the CPS law department] that I was being challenged on my eligibility even though I certainly live in the voting district,” said Khwaja, a contributor to and former editor for the Weekly who now works as the director of outreach and development for the Invisible Institute, an editorial partner of the Weekly.
On election day, Khwaja was present near the school assisting voters. Though schools were required to have proper signage outside the building to provide directions for voters, including people opting for curbside voting, there was nothing outside Hyde Park Academy. Khwaja helped direct voters to the polling place and at one point argued with a school staffer who she said refused to assist curbside voters. “There were voters who were coming in that were reasonably nervous about voting in-person during the pandemic, which I was trying to explain to the [staff member],” she said. “But they put their foot down and insisted that unless [voters had a disability] they had to come inside [to vote].”
Khwaja suspects her interaction with the school staff member is what led to the petition challenging her win for one of the community representative seats. Her hearing was eventually scheduled for December 22. Kishasha Ford, an attorney with the CPS law department, and Andrea Horton, the Board-appointed hearing officer, facilitated the virtual hearing, to which more than a hundred people showed up, most of them in support of Khwaja’s candidacy. But the unusual number of people at this hearing led to almost an hour of technical difficulties because the meeting had reached capacity, preventing new observers from entering the call. Ultimately, the case was dismissed because the challenger, Sheila Scott, and the five people who co-signed her petition, did not show up. “The hearing was very indicative of the bureaucratic mess CPS created with these LSC elections,” said Khwaja. “It shows that they’re never prepared for real civic engagement.”
CPS did not respond to a request for comment on the Hyde Park hearing.
Khwaja’s challenge wasn’t an isolated incident. At Ashburn Elementary, candidates challenged the school election after school staff, including candidates, were forced to count the ballots on their own after none of the judges showed up. “[The Ashburn LSC] contacted OLSCR over five times [about the absent election judges] and never got a response,” said Erskine. At the hearing, Natasha says parents and community members also expressed concerns over retaliation and intimidation tactics related to the election. CPS said in a statement that back-up staffers were available for “situations in which a replacement was needed” and had “not been made aware of any school without coverage that did not receive staffing support”.
At Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville, one candidate never received an invitation to a hearing challenging the election process. “I initially won the [teacher] election when the ballots were counted on December 1,” said Kelly Longmire-Crawford, a math teacher and LSC member at Mollison. In an email to her, CPS law attorney Kishasha Ford said that Longmire-Crawford should’ve received an invite to the hearing as an interested party of the election, but that her specific candidacy wasn’t being challenged so her presence wasn’t required.
But once the hearing happened, she found out that they were going to redo the teacher election. “By December 11, they re-did the election and I lost.”
Longmire-Crawford suspects the pushback could be related to a previous LSC meeting at Mollison in which members, including herself, voted not to renew the principal’s contract. “Despite the hurdles, I’ll still keep showing up [to LSC meetings],” she said. “I won’t have voting power, but I’ll still have a voice.”
According to the district, twenty-three hearings related to post-election challenges were held at seventeen schools, including Robinson Elementary, Jefferson Elementary, Mollison Elementary, Walter Payton College Prep, Wentworth Elementary, Yates Elementary, Morrill Elementary, Fort Dearborn Elementary, Peirce Elementary, Volta Elementary, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, Hyde Park Academy High School, Whistler Elementary, Agassiz Elementary, Goethe Elementary, Monroe Elementary, and Prosser Career Academy.
Many questions remain about this year’s election process, including questions around mail-in ballots that continue pouring into some schools weeks after the election. But for now, new LSC members should expect an organizational meeting in the coming year to figure out logistics, including setting a consistent date and time for their LSC to meet. The new terms for LSC members begin on January 11. “Council members should also expect to create and vote on their bylaws,” said Erskine. “They should also be receiving documents from the principal pertinent to their school community such as the school budget, school staff position report, discipline matters.”
Erskine also encourages council members to create subcommittees within their LSCs that non-members can participate in. These subcommittees have the power to make recommendations to LSCs but don’t make final decisions. Examples of subcommittees include remote learning committees or racial equity committees.
Local School Councils were envisioned in 1987 by a group of activists and community leaders fighting to decentralize school power in a much larger effort to reform the nation’s third-largest school district. Coming on the heels of a nineteen-day teachers’ strike, Mayor Harold Washington convened over 1,000 parents, board members, teachers, and business leaders in an education summit to create a comprehensive proposal for school reform.
About a month later, Washington died, but members of the summit vowed to continue working on a plan for school reform in his honor. By April of 1988, the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools (ABCs) Coalition was formed. Its goal was to push for Chicago school reform through state legislation. After months of lobbying in Springfield in what one legislator called, “the most effective grassroots lobbying campaign” he had ever seen, the ABCs Coalition successfully passed the Chicago School Reform Act through the Illinois General Assembly. Local School Councils were officially established.
The first LSC elections were held in October 1989, with over 300,000 voters participating and 17,000 candidates running for only 5,940 seats. The shift to hyper-local governance inspired key stakeholders—parents and community members—to leverage their power, reflecting the energy of Black and Latinx students twenty years prior during the 1968 high school walkouts. During those walkouts, students were also demanding decentralization and self-determination. Their actions eventually led to a long list of implementations including hiring more Black and Latinx educators and offering bilingual education through the creation of Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen.
But the excitement around LSCs died down after Mayor Richard M. Daley began curtailing their power. Soon after his election in 1989, he appointed his own interim members to the Board of Education, ignoring input from Local School Council members throughout the selection process.
In 1995, Daley led a successful campaign in Springfield to amend the Chicago School Reform Act to give his office authority over Board appointments and the appointment of the school system’s head, now called the Chief Executive Officer. By this point, philanthropic support for training materials and LSC elections also dried up. Since 1991, turnout for LSC elections has generally dropped, with the lowest being in 2012, when only 20,000 voters participated.
Voter turnout has yet to come close to the first election cycle in 1989. But if this year was any indication, interest in Local School Councils will grow as school communities push for more answers on policing and investment.
“Being a part of my Local School Council has made me realize how much potential there is in my community,” said Dixon Romeo, a lifelong Chicagoan, organizer, and LSC member at Parkside Academy in South Shore. “But, the fact of the matter is, [CPS] can’t keep treating schools like a business. They’re a civic institution which means we need to fund them.”
The push for more investment into LSCs is parallel to the ongoing fight for an elected representative school board. The levels of bureaucracy around democratic local governance in CPS—from the Office of Local School Council Relations to the entrenched power of the law department—are a testament to the top-down model that communities are itching to democratize.
“People most affected by this stuff are closer to the answer,” said Romeo. “If we really want them to be engaged, [CPS] has to start listening.”
Kelly Garcia is a freelance journalist covering education and was previously a Civic Reporting fellow for City Bureau. This is her first piece for the Weekly.