Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Bored of Education

On Wednesday last week, I headed back to CPS Board chambers to listen to the budget presentation and student speakers from across the city.

I took The Tot (Who's Not) with me, having remembered to actually register him with the BoE site in advance. Before I get further into my report, I'd like to pause here and add some suggestions of how the BoE can make its meetings more hospitable to the students and families whom it allegedly serves. This is a direct response to Board President Vitale's request for feedback of this nature. 

First, put out a detailed agenda. So great to know all of the resolutions and amendments that you'll vote on after you close the meeting, but it'd be so much more useful to know that the CEO's report is going to take three hours before you give me 120 seconds to speak. 

Second, if you are going to take away my water bottle, you should probably give me access to a water fountain on the 5th or 15th floor. Dehydration should not be a BoE requirement. Similarly, if Central Office employees can bring in a granola bar, maybe you should let me do the same for my 6-year-old. You know the one who hasn't eaten since security made us dump our lunch four hours ago. C'mon, Chartwells would never allow this! 

Third, I shouldn't need a press pass to record an open meeting.

Finally, cutting the camera/sound in overflow during disruptions on the 5th floor doesn't make an open meeting. If you think the charge of trying to hide something is unfair, maybe you should stop trying to hide something? 

On that note, CPS began the meeting by congratulating seven District schools for their ISAT gains: Prescott, McDade Classical, Canty, Coonley, Dixon, and Webster Handberry. When given time to speak, only the Canty principal, Ms. Kopec, drew attention to her school's overcrowding and budgeting problems. Otherwise, it was mostly a mutual love fest between the BoE and the principals of these schools. Which is exactly what I would expect. 

I have never seen a BoE meeting where Board members interacted with the crowd. Vitale alluded to a meeting with high school students just prior to the meeting--perhaps this was the reason for the bird wanting to appear more approachable. 

The meeting then progressed to the CEO's report, which included many sub reports from the strangely named C-level staff hired by Barbara Byrd-Bennett. First up was John Barker, chief accountability officer, who reported an unsubstantiated causal relationship between better ISAT cut scores and the full school day. According to Barker, 65 percent of all elementary CPS schools reported improved meets and exceeds levels on the ISAT in math and reading. Pioneer schools outpaced average District growth in ISAT scores by three times. He did say that ISAT scores have shown steady growth since the test was first implemented in 2001. I wonder what this test is actually measuring.

However, Barker said in his report that cut scores are higher across the country. He also said that the higher scores in CPS suggest that teaching is effective within CPS and that the District is on the right track with its first pillar of effective education. 

At this point, Board member Dr, Mahalia Hines (clearly keenly interested in charters) asked Barker if the ISAT scores included high school or charter students. Even if Barker hadn't covered who takes the ISAT in his presentation, Hines should know, as a member of the Chicago BoE, what the ISAT is and who takes it. Barker did not admit any discrepancy in charter and District students' ISAT performance, but said that charter and District schools have been on the same trajectory since the inception of NCLB. 

BBB spoke briefly before introducing Tim Cawley and his budget presentation. She claimed that the CPS Central Office has made significant reductions in staffing for the fourth year in a row. (Notice that no one reports when the CO hires new people.) She also said that the District is challenged by inequitable and insufficient funding from the state and citywide and within this platform, asked for pension reform and increase in per-pupil funding amounts from the state. 

As a resident of Chicago, it's hard not to be a bit distrustful of Tim Cawley, one of the chosen few who has been given a residency waiver. In his presentation, which included a lot of hard-to-read, tiny type, info-dense slides, he presented the realities of a $4 million pension cliff. He highlighted the numerous problems of the budget: no financial benefit from closing schools due to reinvestment in welcoming schools, property taxes are at the cap in Chicago, the debt management load is high, must keep higher level reserves, no way to keep funding flat. The two problems that he mentioned again and again are low funding and outrageous debt service. 

Cawley did say that despite this gloom and doom, CPS did increase funding to some programs: 
  • increased spending to magnet, SE, and STEM programs (as a magnet school LSC member, I wonder how they calculated this increase in spending)
  • further investments in PK through the Ready to Learn program 
  • investments in early intervention
  • extended Safe Passage program
  • increased all-day K for everyone in CPS
  • investments in programs to recapture dropouts and reduce truancy 
Cawley was interrupted by a heckler who was escorted out of the room by security. The heckler asked about toxic swaps, which later elicited some follow-up questions by Board member Henry Beinen and which were answered by Cawley and CFO Peter Rogers. 

As BBB returned to the floor, Dr. Hines made a comment about asking adults in the room to provide a better example for students of respectful behavior. At least, that's what I think she was trying to say. She was barely coherent and I wondered if she wasn't on medication. Rosemary Vega, a parent who had erupted at June's board meeting, erupted again at Hines's comment, complaining that the only thing students would learn from BBB and her staff at a Board meeting were how to be liars. At this point, I was listening to Vega as she walked around the room ranting and avoiding security, but watching BBB's staff as they sat to the left of the BoE, behind the tribunal gate. Is it difficult for them to go to BoE meetings? It probably feels like a waste of their time, to them. 

At this point, The Tot (Who's Not) was losing what was left of his patience for the "bored" meeting. BBB finally concluded her remarks, but public comment was delayed further by a short speech from Karen Lewis and much longer presentations by two aldermen. The teenage students from schools such as WY, Lane, Kelly, and the CSOSOS organization who surrounded us in the audience were also losing patience, but managed to hold it together for another hour or two until they had their 120 seconds each of comment. We left before the sitting behind me could speak, but I saw her impassioned speech on Chicago Tonight later in the day. 

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