"Larry McKeon was a visionary leader and skillfully worked for consensus without compromising his basic principles...Few people know that in spring 2007 Larry was the catalyst in the General Assembly to stop the last-minute amendment intended to gut the authority of Chicago's 540 unique elected Local School Councils (LSCs).
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Remember Larry McKeon: A Catalyst for
Protecting Chicago's Local School Councils
Don Moore and Valencia Rias
Designs for Change
Larry McKeon was a visionary leader and skillfully worked for consensus without compromising his basic principles. He focused on a wide range of issues to empower people who lacked a voice in making public policy. Larry died of a heart attack on May 13, and was remembered at a remarkable, diverse memorial celebration at Truman College on Saturday, June 15.
Larry is most-widely known both as the first openly gay and the first HIV-positive member of the Illinois General Assembly. He was the key legislative leader in the passage of historic state legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation-the culmination of a 30-year struggle. After serving five terms in the State House of Representatives, he moved to Springfield and continued to lobby part-time for causes in which he strongly believed.
Few people know that in spring 2007 Larry was the catalyst in the General Assembly to stop the last-minute amendment intended to gut the authority of Chicago's 540 unique elected Local School Councils (LSCs).
The spring 2007 attack on Local School Councils began 15 months ago. Mayor Daley charged that the right to select principals should be taken away from all 540 Chicago Local School Councils because Curie High School's LSC decided not to rehire what the mayor called their "superstar" principal.
DFC wanted to dig deeper into the Curie controversy and was willing to side with the Curie principal, if a careful analysis of the facts justified it. However, like many others, we did not believe that the rights of 540 Local School Councils should be stripped away because of the decision of one LSC.
Fortunately, Larry McKeon also strongly supported Local School Councils. He believed that they made grassroots democracy an effective reality. He knew the research that showed LSCs were helping to improve school quality and student achievement.
Larry agreed to lobby for Designs for Change (DFC) to protect and expand LSC authority.
Designs for Change, Parents United for Responsible Education, South Side United Local School Council Federation, and other supporters of LSCs began a grassroots political campaign to head off what we (correctly) feared was coming: a last-minute legislative amendment in May 2007 to cut the heart out of LSC powers in Chicago.
Two prominent former Chairs of the Senate Education Committee-Arthur Berman and Miguel del Valle (who ran for City Clerk on Mayor Daley's slate)--stated their opposition to any change in LSC powers to the press.
Evidence emerged that the Curie principal had often ignored not only her present LSC's ideas for improving their school and their requests for information, but also the concerns of the previous LSC.
Our coalition prepared fact sheets, won press coverage, alerted a wide range of groups and individuals using the Internet, and organized LSC members to call their legislators and to lobby in Springfield.
But Larry McKeon made the difference. He used the press coverage and fact sheets that the coalition generated in an on-going dialogue with his elected colleagues to convince them that Local School Councils were a unique success and deserved more support, rather than to have their opportunity to make a difference destroyed.
Larry McKeon was very close to Mayor Richard Daley, who spoke movingly about Larry at Saturday's memorial celebration. Larry was Mayor Daley's first liaison with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. However, for Larry the issue of the demonstrated effectiveness of LSCs and the opportunities they gave people in every neighborhood to improve their schools was paramount.
When Representative Dan Burke approached a fellow legislator to seek backing for an amendment to throttle the authority of LSCs to choose their principals in late May 2007, she replied, "Talk with Larry McKeon." Complementing the firestorm of phone calls and visits by LSC members to their legislators that followed, Larry worked tirelessly to win his colleagues over with his careful mastery of the facts, his calm warm personality, and his wry sense of humor. The deep respect he had earned in his years as a state legislator opened many doors last spring.
Five days after the campaign to pass the amendment began, Representative Burke told Larry that he was no longer going to introduce the amendment or have anything to do with it. "And please stop all these people who are calling and tying up my phone lines," Burke said. "We'll make our best efforts," Larry replied.
Though Larry battled both AIDS and cancer and lost 80 pounds, he never complained about his health. He was working for change until the last day of his life-planning strategies with DFC staff about how to organize for Chicago hearings, sponsored by Representative Esther Golar, to identify ways to strengthen Local School Councils.
In public life, a few people in each generation stand out as both visionaries and masters of the specifics of bringing about change. In the past 30 years in Chicago, Harold Washington is one. Larry McKeon is another.
Larry's death is a great loss to so many people who cared about the broad range of issues to which Larry dedicated his life -including gender equality, homelessness, community economic development, ending racial discrimination, the rights of immigrants, good housing, safe neighborhoods, and good schools.
We feel great sorrow in losing this wonderful colleague. We express our deep sympathy to Larry's family and many friends. It was a great privilege to work with Larry and to learn from him.
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