As part of an effort by members of the City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus to free up legislation stuck in the Rules Committee, Ald. John Arena (45) is expected to move for a vote today on a non-binding resolution calling for a referendum on an elected school board in Chicago.
The measure currently has 14 cosponsors, and is not expected to pass. However, by calling out the resolution, Arena and others are hoping to reignite the debate over whether the city should have an elected school board, and whether or not the issue should be placed in front of voters to decide. The resolution has been sitting in the Rules Committee since it was introduced in September.
Chicago’s seven-member school board is currently appointed by the mayor, with each person serving a four years term. Chicago’s board is the only one in the state that’s not elected, due to a provision in Article 34 of the Illinois School Code that exempts cities with more than 500,000 people from electing their board.
It’s widely accepted that the measure has been held up in the Rules Committee at the direction of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who would prefer to keep the status quo in selecting board members. However, a number of education advocates, community groups and some alderman have been vocal about the need to make the school board more accountable to the taxpayers it serves.
“The resolution asks for a simple referendum to gauge voter’s interest in the concept of an elected school board,” Ald. Arena said. “Do they want a body that has the ability to raise taxes and impose levies to be responsive to the general population through an election process, or be appointed by the mayor? This issue is timely, and it’s needed in Chicago to make Chicago Public Schools leadership accountable to the taxpayers.”
Arena and others point to the recent record school closings, teacher layoffs and an unequal distribution of resources and attention to schools across the district as reasons why an elected school board is needed. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says that by being appointed and not elected, the board is beholden to people other than those who send their children to public school every day.
“It has been extraordinarily frustrating for us to not have the ability to hold people accountable for the decisions they make,” she said. “The idea that you can only hold one person accountable every four years – first of all, it is entirely too much power to be invested in one person. And second, there is a huge disconnect between what city residents and people who send their children to public school want, and what the board of education is willing to do.”
Both Arena and Lewis point to the recent decision by the city to spend $18 to $20 million to expand Lincoln Elementary School on the city’s north side as an example of how decisions are made without being part of a larger plan to address overcrowding across the entire city.
Two elementary schools in the 45th Ward are significantly more overcrowded than Lincoln, according to the CPS Facilities Master Plan released in September—Prussing Elementary, which is at 165 percent capacity, and Hitch Elementary, which is at 130 percent full. Lincoln, at 128 percent of capacity, is 61st on the CPS list of overcrowded schools.
In 2012, a coalition of parents, activists, community groups and others gathered petition signatures in an effort to get the issue of an elected school board on the November ballot. Despite opposition, the groups managed to canvass some 327 precincts across the city and found approximately 87% of the people asked supported the idea of an elected school board. Despite collecting roughly 60,000 signatures, the referendum was kept off the November ballot.
Christopher Bell is a board member with Illinois Raise Your Hand, a coalition of parents and citizens that supports the issue of an elected school board for Chicago. He says that even if the proposed referendum is defeated in City Council, the truth is that if given a choice, voters would opt for more say in how board members are selected.
“The fact that the mayor and members of the City Council are reluctant to bring this question to a vote means they believe most of the people in Chicago are going to vote yes, and this is why they don't want it on the ballot,” he said. “If they truly believed the people of Chicago liked the school board the way it’s done now, they should have no problems putting the question out there.”