Well, it’s happened again.
For the second time in two years, the Chicago City Council has refused to allow voters to weigh in on one of the most fundamental issues about how the city is run and where its future lies.
And for the second time in as many years, Council allies of Mayor Emanuel have used trickery and parliamentary maneuvers to cover up their political cowardice in denying the measure.
At issue is a non-binding resolution sponsored by Ald. John Arena (45) intended to place the question of an elected school board on the February ballot. The resolution asks a simple question: Shall each member of the board of School District 299, known as the Chicago Board of Education, be elected by voters of the City of Chicago, State of Illinois?
Judging by the reaction of political power structure in this town, you would think the question being asked is whether voters should allow Ebola to arrive on the next flight in to O’Hare.
In fact, Mayor Emanuel and his allies have done everything possible to make sure the question of an elected school board never sees the light of day. For starters, the resolution was originally introduced more than a year ago, but has since been bottled up in the Council’s Rules Committee. The committee chairman, Michelle Harris (8), had refused to bring the resolution forward, despite repeated calls to do so.
Even before that, an attempt in 2012 to get the measure heard was thwarted by Ald. Joe Moore (49), who claimed the proper paperwork hadn’t arrived at his committee office in time.
But despite repeated setbacks, supporters of the measure, including Arena and other members of the Progressive Reform Caucus, have refused to give up. That’s why, during Wednesday’s Council meeting, Arena was expected to invoke Rule 41, which would have required a vote of the full Council on the matter.
Before that could happen, however, Ald. Moore—surprise!—pulled a neat little trick during Tuesday’s Rules Committee hearing by introducing three substitute referendum question designed to crowd out ballot space for the elected school board choice. As it turns out, no notice was given beforehand, and Harris passed the resolutions without any debate.
As Illinois law allows only three referendum questions to appear on any ballot, Moore’s referendums—one on paid sick leave, the others on public financing of elections and city employees convicted of domestic violence—ensured there was no room left for Arena’s issue.
As a result, voters won’t get the chance to have their voice heard this February. Or anytime soon.
Why does all of this matter? Simply this: Chicago is the only city in Illinois without an elected school board. Instead, the board is selected by mayoral appointment and confirmed by City Council. That means, for all intents and purposes, the Chicago Board of Education is a wholly owned subsidiary of the fifth floor of City Hall, and almost complete control of how the school system is run in Chicago resides with the mayor.
That means that if Mayor Emanuel wants to shut down 50 neighborhood schools without much debate, he can. If he wants to funnel millions of dollars into privately run charter schools, he can. If he wants to pour millions into selected schools in well-off neighborhoods while starving schools in poorer neighborhoods, well, that’s his choice.
A school board elected by and directly accountable to voters would change all of that. At a minimum, an elected school board provides for the opportunity to replace board members every election, and therefore provides a voice for parents, teachers and education advocates the opportunity to weigh in on crucial matters such as class size, length of school day and opening and closing schools.
But, judging from the actions of the mayor’s pals in City Council, that’s clearly too much responsibility for the citizens of Chicago to even consider, let alone possess.
That’s why the mayor tapped Moore to once again play political assassin. That’s why City Council doesn't want to rock the boat so close to an election.
That’s why the political power structure in this town thinks democracy is only for fools.
Especially when it comes to questions about how the city should be run.