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The Latest Chicago Public Schools Skirmish: Elected School Board

Chicago is unusual among school districts nationwide for its appointed school board, but less so among urban districts, where school board elections can be expensive and politicized. After an experiment with a hybrid model led to full mayoral control in 1995, there’s increased interest, including from some aldermen, in trying again.

Recently ten aldermen, with the support of a coalition that includes the Chicago Teachers Union, moved to put a non-binding resolution on the fall ballot in support of an elected school board, like 96 percent of U.S. school districts (as of 2008). It was submitted to the city clerk three minutes late, so Joe Moore, chair of the Human Relations Committee, quashed it. Moore has a long-held reputation as an independent, which supporters of the resolution subsequently used to club Moore: “‘We thought we had an ally in Joe Moore,’ said Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th. ‘The people got screwed.’”

As Ben Joravsky writes in a piece critical of Moore, introducing the resolution via his committee was itself a third option (the next is a petition), and Moore acknowledged that the resolution runs counter to the desires of the Emanuel administration:

Moore says he then called one of the mayor’s legislative aides to let them know, as a matter of courtesy, that he was planning to give the measure a hearing. “She wasn’t happy,” Moore says. “I’ve been around long enough to know that an elected school board is anathema to the mayor.”

Eric Zorn is also highly critical of Moore, but gives Moore ample space to defend himself, whose argument is that he’s strictly following the rules as a matter of fairness: “A smooth functioning democracy requires an agreed-upon set of rules of procedure that are applied equally and fairly across the board.  The moment you start cutting someone slack is the moment the rules begin to lose their meaning.  Fair and consistent application of rules avoids the potential for favoritism down the road.”

I feel a bit for John Arena, the alderman who introduced the resolution at 10:03 AM instead of 10:00 AM, having navigated these deadlines and the normative ethics that follow them with many assignments over the years. But it’s a mere skirmish, and not a grand defeat for pro-election forces; as Moore has noted, they can now move to plan C, a petition.

The argument predates the Emanuel administration, and Chicago isn’t alone in the debate. Baltimore, which also has an appointed school board, has been in a similar argument for several years, with proponents trying and failing to implement a hybrid board. While most school districts have elected boards, Chicago is less unusual among urban school districts; it’s generally accepted that, for obvious reasons, big-city school-board elections are more politicized and more expensive to compete in than in suburban and rural district elections. So cities have been less likely to embrace elected school boards. Even Chicago’s elected school board before 1995 was not entirely open:

The 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, which decentralized the school system, created a complicated, grass-roots nominating process that restricted the mayor’s choices. Indeed, former Mayor Richard M. Daley left some seats open rather than choose any of the nominees.  The 1995 legislation abolished the nominating process, thus returning unfettered control of the system to the mayor.

The 1995 legislation was a response to general unhappiness with the nominating system, which ended with a bit of a mess:

The Chicago Teachers Union took some hard knocks from lawmakers, but it, too, likes direct accountability. “We’ve been seeking accountability, and now maybe we’ll get it,” says union spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. “What we had before was a board with no constituency, which enabled someone like Sharon Grant to say that she was ‘doing it for the kids.’ She was accountable to no one.”

Grant, who was president of the old board, recently pleaded guilty to income-tax evasion; in addition, she’s under investigation for alleged conflicts of interest and using her influence to arrange board contracts.

She went to prison, but tax evasion wasn’t the only thing people didn’t like about her:

She was as troublesome a leader as ever held the title of Chicago school board president.

Even as parents and community activists complained about the way in which Grant was maneuvered into office–the dealmaking stopped only moments before the election–Daley stood by her.

Once in office, Grant almost immediately displayed signs of trouble: a flip tongue, a brusque manner, an alarming tendency to skirt board rules to her own advantage. Daley remained loyal.

But the pendulum has swung back a bit, here and elsewhere, and Rahm Emanuel has seen the most pushback (and the most willingness to compromise) with the CTU and its allied forces, so this won’t be the end of it. Chicago Tonight has even more:

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