In a small community room at La Villita Community Church in Little Village, a group of seven mothers sat around a table with a pile of candy and a stack of papers, one titled “UNO Schools Ongoing Lack of Transparency.”
Luz Solarte has children at Omar E. Torres Elementary School and was livid when she found out the UNO Charter School Network, or UCSN, had laid off several parent engagement specialists and graduate support counselors over the summer.
“They were there to help our children get a better understanding of what to expect in college,” Solarte said. “This is someone that’s telling your child, ‘This is what you need to get up here just like everybody else so you can be up there with the important society.’ So now, they took away all that and what do we have left? The poor class.”
This frustration from parents has grown in recent years as UCSN cut ties with UNO, the longstanding neighborhood organization. “The Divorce,” as parents and teachers now call it, came after a Chicago Sun-Times investigation unearthed patronage spending and financial mismanagement. Many top officials resigned, including Juan Rangel, the man who led both organizations for years and had deep ties to City Hall, serving as co-chair of Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 campaign for mayor.
The turmoil, coupled with Chicago Public Schools cutting the amount of money it gave to UCSN schools by $2.3 million, has led parents to demand something most public school in Chicago already have: elected local school councils.
Local school councils are basically mini elected school boards at each school made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, a non-teacher staff, the principal and a student. All of the traditional, district-run public schools in the city have them, but charter schools are exempt and are instead run by nonprofits with their own board of directors.
Guillermina Valdez, who has children at Octavio Paz Elementary School, told the Chicago Board of Education last week that parents at UCSN schools want a say in who their principal is; they want a say in how money gets spent; and they want “an election process where parents elect parents, ensuring that all 16 schools in the network include parent representation democratically thereby keeping the CEO and administration truthfully accountable.”
But the city’s Board of Education can’t just give charter schools local school councils. It would require a change to state law, something that groups have advocated in the past.
Local School Councils were created three decades ago as part of sweeping school reform legislation. Malcom Bush helped draft the law in 1988. At the time, he worked for a group called Voices for Illinois Children, which was one of more than a dozen parent and community groups involved in the school reform effort. He said people were fed up with the top-down way CPS were being run at the time.
“Principals had to go to their engineer who went to the district engineer who came back to the engineer who came back to the principal to change the heat setting in the school,” Bush said. “I mean, it was that ridiculous.”
Ironically, Bush recalled that UNO was a key player in getting the 1988 legislation passed. For a while, UNO devoted much of its organizing power to getting people elected to these mini school boards.
“My recollection is that UNO was the most important force in the city for getting parents to stand and parents to vote,” Bush said.
In fact, Rangel, the former head of both UNO the neighborhood organization and UNO the charter school network, got his start serving on the local school council at his former elementary school.
So why, then, don’t these councils exist at the charter schools Rangel later went on to run?
Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said he sees charter schools as building on what local school councils started.
“I don’t see them in conflict. I see them as complementary,” Broy said. “You had the LSCs. It didn’t change all that much in terms of what was available to those communities. The charter model came along eight years later and gave a real direct sense of agency to those communities to start their own schools, build them, not rely on CPS decision making or political decision making.”
In 1996, the state passed a law allowing nonprofits, like UNO, to open charter schools. The idea was to create public schools free from the mandates governing traditional public schools, which happened to include the provision about LSCs.
UNO became one of the first non-profits to open a charter school in Chicago. Over time, they took full advantage of the freedoms afforded to charters and quickly built a network of 16 schools serving 8,000 children, almost have Latino, in overcrowded areas of the city.
Broy said getting local school councils won’t automatically fix all the challenges facing the UNO Charter School Network and he doesn’t want a one-size-fits-all mandate.
“We don’t think it’s appropriate to put in statute what every single charter should do in terms of a governance model, but if an individual school wants to have a certain number of parents and community members and maybe the principal on the governing board, that should be great,” Broy said.
The UNO Charter School Network already has a parent on its nonprofit board, chairwoman Yeni Rojas.
Brian Towne, the chief of external affairs for the UNO Charter School Network, said the network prides itself on having strong parent engagement.
“We have many opportunities for our parents to be involved in their child’s school, but it seems like we need to do a better job of making sure that they’re all aware of those opportunities,” Towne said.
Parents, like Luz Solarte and Guillermina Valdez, said they want to do more than volunteer. They plan to continue collecting signatures to give to the UCSN board and eventually, to state lawmakers. They’ll be out Friday talking with Roger Park parents about why they want elected local school councils at their children’s charter schools.
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.