A coalition of community activists, educators, labor leaders and parents plan to circumvent recent city council parliamentary tricks to crowd off a ballet referendum calling for on elected school board in next year’s municipal election.

The coalition has begun the arduous task of collecting signatures in all 50 wards to place on the February’s ballot a nonbinding referendum asking voters to back an elected representative school board.

The effort, the coalition says, is to dump Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school board that rubber-stamped the closure of 50 Chicago Public Schools in 2013. 

“The current handpicked board is not responsive to the desires of Chicago,” said Brandon Johnson, deputy political director for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). “Whenever it comes to the desires and needs of black and brown families it’s always a question of whether or not democracy should be permitted.”

The end run comes after an Oct. 7 rules committee meeting where aldermen approved three advisory questions two of which were added at the last minute to appear on the municipal election ballot. The move was seen by many as a way to prevent the question of an elected school board from appearing on February’s ballot. By state law only three citywide questions can appear on the ballot.

Now the coalition is pushing to add the question on the ballot in each individual ward. The question will appear in wards that collect enough signatures. The coalition needs to collect signatures from eight percent of voter turnout from each ward in November’s general election.

Johnson said the goal was to have the question go through city council but the mayor blocked that.

“The aldermen could have put this as a priority, but they chose not to because they allowed themselves to be controlled by the mayor,” he said. “He is determined to privatize public schools. Whenever the will of the people is ignored … then we have to do what is necessary.” 

Johnson noted that collecting signatures is “cumbersome,” but he said he is confident enough signatures can be gathered to have the question appear in all 50 wards.

“Right now we feel pretty good about this being a citywide referendum,” Johnson said.

The coalition launched its signature drive last week outside of McNair Elementary school, 4820 W. Walton. In April the Chicago Board of Education approved McNair along with two other schools to become turnaround schools operated by Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). AUSL, which operate 29 schools, has ties to CPS Board President David Vitale and Tim Cawley, CPS’ chief operating office. Vitale stepped down as chairman for AUSL in 2011. 

Johnson said the west side has been hit hard by this push to privatize public education. He noted a number of schools have been turned over to private operators, and he called North Lawndale ground zero for charter school expansion. He added that Ald. Emma Mitts (37) supported the creation of a Noble charter school across from Prosser High School. He said Chicago needs to follow the lead of Austin’s next door neighbor Oak Park, which has an elected school board. 

“It is an affront that we have aldermen on the West Side and South Side of Chicago that are not responsive to the desires and needs of their constituents,” Johnson said.

Although nonbinding, the referendum, he said, sends a message to the political structure that they must be accountable to the people. A change in state law is required to have a representative elected school board. There are two bills HB 2793 and SB 1573 in the General Assembly calling for an elected school board.

“Throughout history poor and working class families always had to demonstrate that there is a need for progress because you have a political structure that only wants to respond to the corporate elite and to big special interest,” Johnson said.

Dwayne Truss, a West Side education advocate, said charter schools are not working for African-American students. A report by Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity shows charter schools are no better than traditional neighborhood schools. Truss called charter schools “a wasted experiment.”

“We are not under any kind of illusion that the an elected school board will magically solve all the problems but it would give parents, community stakeholders a chance to have a voice in terms of having people held accountable for the direction of our schools,” Truss said. 

CONTACT: larisalynch@yahoo.com

Three aldermen, three views on an elected Chicago school board

Austin's three aldermen support some form of an elected Chicago Board of Education or are open to hearing what the community most desires with respect to representation.

In an interview with the aldermen, Deborah Graham (29th) said she supports a half-elected and half-appointed Chicago school board, while Jason Ervin (28th) supports a direct representative-style format, with school board members elected via district. Emma Mitts (37th), meanwhile, said she'd support whatever her constituents would want.  

"I would support it if my community supported it," she said. "If that's something they want, and we have a community meeting to discuss it, then I would support what they recommend."

Graham noted that a fully-elected school board would face similar criticisms to that of an appointed board. 

"Once they get to be elected, [people] are going to say they're 'owned,'" and the moment they don't do something for the community, it's still going to be the same type of conversations," Graham said, adding that a half-and-half board would be the most fair.  

Ervin expressed support for an elected school by "direct representation."  

"I mean by district, meaning that folks in our community would have a direct representative on the school board to look at the issues of the community," he said. "I wouldn't support an at-large type of scenario because I think in those types of scenarios the balance is not there where it's most necessarily needed."

Ervin added that if the state legislature approved a direct representation Chicago school board, he would support it. 

—Terry Dean

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