Local school high horses

Why the Jones LSC needs to remember its place

There are possibly more acronyms for spirited adult-led organizations associated with public education in Chicago than there are stairs at this school. Take the Friends of Jones (FOJ), for one – our school newspaper’s benefited immensely from its generous grants for our up-and-coming broadcast program, and countless clubs, committees, and other student endeavors would be in shambles if not for its financial support. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strives relentlessly – if not somewhat controversially – to make a name for itself on local and national stages alike. Chicago Public Schools (CPS), headed by newly appointed CEO Pedro Martinez, is the third-largest school district in the United States, overseeing over 600 schools educating nearly 350,000 students throughout the city. While the importance of local school councils (LSCs) to the day-to-day functions in a school district as disparately resourced as CPS cannot be understated, the overabundance of power, delegation, and intimidatory influence held by the Jones LSC has sowed more harm than good throughout the greater school community.

What happens if justifiably public information is gatekept? In 2020, in the wake of racial strife surrounding both the George Floyd protests and a then-viral Jones BIPOC Instagram page, a Jones parent sued the LSC for refusing to release footage of summer meetings held in response to grievances of a racist school climate aired over social media. According to a Sun-Times article, the parent claimed that Jones was in violation of both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA) by not making this information publicly accessible. Then-LSC FOIA/OMA Officer Timothy Peterson declined a request for comment, only informing the parent that audio recordings of the meetings would eventually be released, and Principal Paul J. Powers deferred comment to CPS. What’s arguably most ironic, however, is the parent plaintiff herself: Cassie Cresswell, current Jones LSC Chair.

With Cresswell overseeing, the LSC’s faults have not been magically relieved; even with a leadership turnover, a new host of controversies continues to emerge. Take a November 2021 meeting, for example, at the end of which Powers abruptly exited after exchanging heated words with Cresswell and fellow parent representative Debora Land. In response to Cresswell’s visible annoyance with the lack of administrative resources being presented to her and her council, Powers fired back, characterizing her demands as “repetitive and incessant.” Cresswell tried her hand at defense; Powers, again, fired back, expressing his contempt for her “mocking attitude toward [him] and other members of [his] team.” Land then jumped in with a long, impassioned request for cooperation – Powers, on the other hand, had had enough at this point. Though I didn’t witness the meeting in real time, so had I.

Jones has a student body of nearly 2,000, is regionally acclaimed, and consistently ranks in the top 100 of the best high schools in the country. I won’t lie: it has its fair share of issues, and Dr. Powers isn’t – and likely never will be – one of my favorite people in this world. But he has an unparalleled duty to, along with the rest of the administrative team, preside over a diverse community of identities, cultures, and economic backgrounds and make the 13 stories they inhabit the safest space possible for each and every one of its members. It’s not in any LSC representative’s job description to tell him to do otherwise.

Former Jones Business Manager Jeremy Voigt said it best in a recent meeting: “instead of working together as a group, I feel that, from day one, this [current] LSC has a level of distrust and has used that to create an unhealthy and negative environment [at Jones].” The last thing that the LSC should be doing is promoting fear-mongering and divisiveness at a time already made uncertain by masking debates and the ongoing aftermath of the January teachers’ work stoppage; rather, its goals should be rooted in effective collaboration, communication, and teamwork. The LSC exists to support Jones – not the other way around. And I don’t think anyone, Ms. Cresswell herself included, would object to meetings being shortened from their long-standing 4+-hour durations.