Chicago has never had an elected school board, but residents from precincts across the city can now express their opinions on whether the city should have one.
About 15,000 people in 26 wards signed a petition to put this question on ballots: Should the Chicago Public Schools have an elected school board? The general election is on Nov. 6.
Residents from about 325 Chicago precincts met in Austin on Oct. 2 to discuss that very question. Taking place at the Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., participants included community leaders, elected officials and teachers.
A second forum on the ballot question took place this week in West Garfield Park, and another session is scheduled a week before the election in North Lawndale on Oct. 28.
Petition signatures were collected by several community groups, including Raise Your Hand, Lawndale Neighborhood Alliance and Chicago Community Coalition for an Elected School Board.
State legislators make the ultimate decision on how to choose board members. Dwayne Truss, an organizer of last week’s forum, said he hopes at least 60 percent of voters mark “yes” on the ballot – a higher percentage may help convince lawmakers to support an elected school board.
Truss, an Austin resident and vice president of Raise Your Hand, jokingly calls the CPS board “the Board of Mis-education.” More seriously, Truss said current members are out of touch with CPS students’ needs.
“Do you think [CPS board member] Penny Pritzker can relate to a student from a poor neighborhood?” Truss said, noting that Pritzker comes from a wealthy and well-known family. He added that most of the other seven board members are not connected with Chicago neighborhoods.
Truss said he began his fight for an elected school board when members voted to shut down Austin High School in 2004. Students were shifted to six other high schools in gang-ridden areas, Truss recalls; where in some cases, students’ safety was compromised.
“If you’re scared to go to school, you may not go to school,” he said.
The panel at Tuesday’s meeting featured Rosita Chatonda, founder of Chicago Alliance of Urban School Educators; Stacy Davis Gates, legislative coordinator for Chicago Teachers Union; and Wendy Katten, director of Raise Your Hand.
According to Katten, there is “no democracy in policy” in CPS, and current board members are ignoring schools that need the most change.
“There is no music education, no P.E., and in some cases, there have been 10-minute lunches,” she said.
Katten added she cannot handle the overwhelming phone calls from angry parents anymore – she said there are too many.
Chatonda maintained that the board needs to “come from the people.” But Katten countered that a board devised from community members could also show political bias.
Other community leaders at the forum blamed the school board for deteriorated schools. Former elementary school teacher Marry Morris said she wants an elected school board.
“Board members would be accountable to people,” Morris insisted. “It would cut out the nonsense that’s going on right now.”
State Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) – joined by state Rep. Camille Lilly (78th) in the audience – said it’s necessary to do some research on the board structure before making a decision to elect or appoint members. Ford noted that his proposed bill, HB 5727, would create a task force to find an optimal process.
“Whether or not we have an elected school board, it’s important to look in to it,” Ford said.
But beyond the pros and cons of an elected school board, Ford stressed that something needs to change.
“That’s why we’re losing our children to the streets – because there’s something wrong with Chicago Public Schools,” Ford said.