Chicago Board of Education Chambers. | Chicago BOE

The Chicago Westside Branch of the NAACP hosted a forum last Saturday, Nov. 7, at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s East Campus, on why Chicago needs an elected school board.

Two aldermen and four state legislators held forth with a panel comprising UIC professor Pauline Lipman, community development expert Valerie Leonard and Austin Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amara Enyia (who is also an Austin Weekly News columnist). Although everyone involved in the discussion supports the elected school board, they disagreed about some details regarding its implementation.

Between 1988 and 1995, a school board nominating committee—comprising 23 community members and five people appointed by the mayor—helped select board members. The committee provided the mayor with a pool of candidates and the mayor chose which candidates to support.

The 1995 Chicago School Reform Commendatory Act did away with the committee while also giving the mayor the authority to appoint the school district’s CEO.

For the past ten years, there have been numerous attempts to change the state law so that the board would be fully elected. Most recently, House Bill 4268 was filed in the Illinois House of Representatives by state Rep. Robert Martwick (D-19th). The bill would make the school board an elected one and would give the board power to appoint the CPS Inspector General.

The Nov. 7 forum was designed to lay out the reasons for why the board should be elected, as well as to give any Chicago residents who attended the chance to ask panelists and legislators questions.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said that, from his experience, the support for an elected board is strong — even in neighborhoods where schools have more resources and better academic records than the norm in CPS.

During the last election, residents in wards throughout the West Side voted overwhelmingly in favor of an elected school board when the question was presented as a non-binding ballot resolution. Taliaferro said the present board has a bad track record and lacks the accountability that might come with an elected school board.

“[CPS] has been mismanaged,” he said. “We closed quite a few schools, four of them in our ward. A lot of those schools haven’t been repurposed. If a school board is not promising, we as residents can give our support to someone else. New York and other major cities have elected school boards. They’ve seen the benefits of it and I think the City of Chicago would be well served if we get the elected school board as well.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said that he felt that an appointed school board led CPS to the brink of financial insolvency. He supported an elected school board, albeit with a caveat.

“What I don’t want to see is a citywide elected school board [rather than school board elected by districts], because then we’d be in the same situation as before.”

An elected board, Ervin said, would encourage more careful discussion of issues facing CPS.

“The elected school board do tend to change slower policy-wise, and it would give us a chance to to debate [policies],” he said. “And that’s something that has been missed in CPS.”

State Rep. Camille Lilly (D-78th), who has signed on as one of the co-sponsors of HB 2468, also voiced her support for the idea of an elected school board.

“I have to say, as a past chair of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, that workforce is essencial,” she said. “And the foundation of workforce is education.”

She said that, while she had concerns about some parts of the bill, she was sure that details could be hammered out before the passage.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8th), who signed on a one of HB 2468’s chief co-sponsors, said that, under the current law, the CPS board left the West Side with nothing but closed schools and turnaround schools on the brink of closure. He also felt it resulted in a drop in the number of quality teachers.

“I just don’t think [the board members] have a clue what to do,” said Ford. “If we allow them to do what do, disparity in education will continue to grow, and our kids will continue to get killed.”

Lightford said that she didn’t have any confidence in the current school board, either.

“The government is poorly run in this state because the governor doesn’t get the government practices,” she said. “And the businessmen on the CPS board don’t get it either.”

The representative described the loss of Austin High School as “horrible” for the community. She implored all aldermen to do everything they can to make sure the schools in their wards get the funding they need.

One point of disagreement that emerged was on whether the elected school board members should have salaries and benefits. Lightford said she was concerned that this would encourage corruption. Lipman said she favored it, because it would allow board members to engage with the community full-time. She also worried that, if there is no salary, the positions would only attract wealthy individuals who don’t need the money — a setup that already exists with the current board.  

As the forum wrapped up, the representatives mentioned that they planned to hold their own hearings on the issue. Ford and Lilly will hold a hearing at Austin Town Hall fieldhouse, 5610 W. Lake St., on Nov. 19, at 6:00 p.m.