If a coalition of activist groups have their way, it looks like Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his City Council allies won't have the final say over whether Chicago voters will get to weigh in on the contentious issue of an elected school board in Chicago.
As you may remember, earlier this month Council allies of Mayor Emanuel used parliamentary maneuvers to deny a non-binding resolution intended to place the question of an elected school board on the February, 2015 municipal ballot.
The resolution asked 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?
It’s an issue that’s been important to many education activists, community groups, Chicago Public School parents and opponents of Mayor Emanuel. Chicago is the only city in Illinois without an elected school board, as the current system allows the mayor almost complete control over who is nominated and installed on the CPS board.
Proponents of an elected board believe the move would allow for greater democracy and community input over issues such as class size, length of school day and opening and closing schools.
Following the move to kill the question in Council, a coalition of 25 organizations is taking the issue to the streets. Led in part by Grassroots Collaborative, the coalition spans community, parent and labor groups, including the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), Action Now, Communities Organized for Democracy in Education (CODE), Grassroots Illinois Action (GIA) and United Working Families (UFW) and more.
Their goal? Get the question of an elected school board in front of voters across the city with a ward-by-ward strategy that places the question on the ballot in each of the city’s 50 wards.
Illinois election law allows only three referendum questions on a ballot at a time. However, the limit exists independently for city-wide referendums, and for local, ward-based referendum. The goal of a 50-ward strategy is to break the city down into 50 separate ballots, and raise enough signatures to get the question on each one.
"Actions have consequences, and United Working Families is committed to a fifty ward strategy to ensure voters have their say,” Kristen Crowell, executive director of United Working Families, told Ward Room. “The City Council may not want [the question of an elected representative school board] on the ballot—but we are determined to put this on the ballot so all of Chicago has a voice."
As part of the drive, the coalition is putting hundreds of workers on the streets, knocking on doors, explaining the issue and getting petition signatures. The threshold for getting a referendum question on the ballot at the ward level requires support from eight percent of a ward’s registered voters, or approximately 50,000 signatures city-wide.
In many ways, the issue of an elected school board in Chicago acts as a kind of a litmus test for whether someone—particularly political figures and aldermanic candidates—stands with Mayor Emanuel or not, both on education issues and his wider agenda.
That’s why, for example, aldermanic candidates who have aligned themselves with the elected school board issue are in some cases also working directly with members of the coalition to carry petitions as part of their own campaigning.
Some of the groups involved in the coalition have been working on the issue for years, and are confident the latest effort is a winning strategy for getting the question in front of voters. Particularly in light of the mayor’s and City Council’s intransigence on the issue.
“Action Now members are actively collecting petitions to ensure our voice is heard on February 24th election,” Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, tells Ward Room. “We’re one of many community organizations fighting together to ensure that Rahm Emanuel is held accountable for closing down our schools."