CPS sued by parent group

By Patrick Smith

At the last minute,  Judge Stuart Hall postponed a scheduled court date for April 28 to give himself more time to get acquainted with the case. Elaine Siegel, attorney for the plaintiffs, said it was encouraging the judge was making an effort to understand the case, but expressed disappointment that so little progress had been made in what she called a very important case to Chicago’s schools and community. The hearing was rescheduled for May 18.

“We are still gummed up in summary judgment proceedings,” Siegel said of a case that has seen numerous delays.  Lawyers for CPS have made repeated efforts to have the case dismissed and the original judge, Sophia Hall, mysteriously recused herself.

Siegel is a member of PURE’s executive board. The group is a 20-year-old organization whose stated mission to inform parents of educational issues and encourage parental involvement in educational decisions. According to Siegel, the school district has actively tried to take power away from the community and prevent oversight of budgets and leadership.

Local school councils are mandatory for Chicago public schools. They are an elected board of parents, teachers and community members.  Along with hiring and reviewing the school’s principal, the council oversees a school improvement budget.

The case was initiated by the district’s decision to deny local school councils to the School of Technology, 7529 S. Constance Ave., the School of Entrepreneurship, 7627 S. Constance Ave. and Mose Vines Academy, 730 N. Pulaski Road. Because CPS designated all three as alternative schools, it argued the schools did not need to have local school councils. An exemption in the state law mandating elected local school councils for Chicago schools allows small or alternative schools to have only appointed advisory councils.

But the PURE lawsuit claims the exemption does not apply to schools that already had existing local school councils, and argues CPS is attempting to remove the democratic leadership of the schools through a technicality.

“The way that they read the statute, if you close a school on June 30, give it a new name and then reopen it on July 1, they’re arguing that that constitutes a change in the school,” Siegel said. “And if you call it a small school or you call it an alternative school, then they have the authority to appoint the local school council, at which point you’ve only got an advisory local school council.”

Both the School of Technology and the School of Entrepreneurship are located in the building that formerly housed South Shore High School, which closed in 2008 as part of CPS’ Renaissance 2010 plan.

According to community activist Enrique Perez, the lawsuit was brought cooperatively by PURE and members of the dissolved local school councils who were outraged by the district’s attempt to take away the community voice in the school.

PURE claims there are two legal reasons CPS is not allowed to take away the local school councils of the so-called small schools. The first is that for a small school to be exempt, the existing school must apply to be a small school, meaning the local school council would have to vote to be dissolved.  The second is that for an alternative school to be exempt, it must be housed in a building that did not formerly have a local school council.

CPS administration disagreed. In earlier court hearings, District Attorney Bill Morgan argued that local school council members did not have the authority to sue CPS, an argument that did not sway Hall, who before recusing herself, ruled the case should be allowed to continue.

According to Siegel, the lawsuit will affect all alternative and turnaround schools in the city, not just the three that sparked the suit.

“What we want to get out of this is the democratization of the school administration,” Siegel said. “So that it’s as broadly as responsible as possible to the individual communities that the different schools are serving.”