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New Chicago Board Of Education Members Voice Dissent

In a move that’s nearly unheard of, the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday almost rejected a policy change recommended by the school district leadership.

This came during the first meeting of a new board appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s newly-appointed board of education met for the first time on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Unlike previous boards, they asked asking hard questions and nearly rejected proposed changes to the district’s school rating system.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

In a move that’s nearly unheard of, the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday almost rejected a policy change recommended by the school district leadership.

This came during the first meeting of a new board appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The board first had a heated discussion about proposed changes to the district’s school rating policy. Then when it came time to vote, just as the measure was about to fail, newly-appointed Board President Miguel del Valle asked what would happen should it go down.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said there would be no school rating policy in place going into the next school year, leaving principals wondering how their school would be evaluated. The ratings are widely used by parents and students to evaluate schools, and poorly-rated schools receive more oversight from the school district.

Given that, the board reconsidered the measure and it passed 5 to 1, with one board member abstaining. Board member Dwayne Truss maintained his earlier no vote, saying he was unhappy parents were not engaged in the process before the changes were proposed.

This appears to be the closest any item has come to failing in at least a decade, perhaps since Chicago switched to a board appointed by the mayor in 1995. Jackson said she was surprised at the challenge by the board, calling it “unexpected.” She said she didn’t get any indication board members had issues from private briefings and correspondence she had with them.

In the past, there was little discussion at board meetings because all member concerns were dealt with at private meetings.

This meeting also had a new format meant to encourage board members to ask questions and promote transparency. Board members discussed items before public participation. Also, board members voted on all items, except executive session items, before they went into closed session.

Del Valle also said the meetings will be translated in real time into other languages and live streamed — two things that were not done in the past.

It made for an unusually long meeting. It started at 10:30 a.m. and didn’t end until about 5 p.m.

While other agenda items elicited discussion, the school rating policy was the most controversial. Under the system, schools get ratings from 1-plus to 3, which is the worst. The ratings are based on a number of measures, including test scores and growth on test scores.

While there have been tweaks over the past couple of years, the main components have been in place for six years. The changes approved by the board on Wednesday add a measure called the third-to-eighth grade on-track rate, which looks at student grades and attendance to see how many are on track for high school success. It will account for 10 percent of a school’s rating.

Some board members had concerns about the specific changes, but they also wanted to look at the rating policy altogether.

“I have larger questions about how are we really defining quality schools,” said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland.

Board member Luisiana Melendez said she worried the rating system was not accounting for the effect poverty has on the ability of students and schools to achieve.

“Those are variables that are systemic and difficult to measure, but have a bearing on school performance,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are rating schools and providing the supports the rating yields that we are taking into account the whole picture.”

Jackson pushed back, defending the rating system.

With the introduction of measures looking at growth on test scores, rather than just focusing on how high students score, more schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are receiving high ratings, Jackson said.

“These schools are led by principals who do not see these problems as intractable,” she said. “We stand behind the fairness in our rating system.”

However, she said she is open to developing a new rating system.

Prior to the board meeting, the Chicago Teachers Union held a rally to call for contract negotiations to speed up. The teacher’s contract, which also covers other staff members, expires on June 30. President Jesse Sharkey said the school district has yet to present any formal proposals around major issues.

Among the demands made at the rally were more librarians, social workers, counselors and bilingual teachers. The school district has said little about negotiations.

The rally also featured members of SEIU Local 73, which has been negotiating a contract for the last year. SEIU represents 7,000 school workers, including special education teacher assistants and security guards.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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