Biggest election night winner? An elected school board

The referendum garnered more than 90 percent of the vote in wards across Austin

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By Michael Romain

Editor

In an election full of candidates garnering less than the requisite 50 percent plus one majority, voters were much more united in their support for the several referendum items that appeared on the ballot. 

Nearly 82 percent of Chicago voters supported a measure that would require the city's private employers to offer their employees paid sick leave in special circumstances, such as illness, incidents of domestic or sexual violence and school closures.

Seventy-nine percent of voters support reducing the "influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns using small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money." And more than 87 percent support requiring city employees convicted of domestic violence offenses during employment be referred to at least one session of a treatment service.

But the biggest point of agreement was on elected school boards. Voters in the 28th, 29th and 37th Wards voted overwhelmingly – 90.6 percent, 91.2 percent and 92.4 percent respectively – in favor of a school board comprising elected members, as opposed to those appointed by the mayor. The nonbinding referendum was on the ballot in 37 wards throughout the city.

The popular mandate will be a large factor in June, that's when state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th) says a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Elected School Board Task Force will go to work evaluating the merits and demerits of an elected board. The task force is the result of a bill introduced by Ford last year and signed into law by Gov. Quinn last August. 

Among Illinois's 868 school districts, CPS is the only one with a board of education that is appointed. It's been that way since 1995.  

"For the first time, there will be a public body to assess the current structure and selection process for the Chicago Board of Education and ways it may be improved," said Ford in a statement released last August.

"It is my belief that the task force can objectively evaluate the pros and cons of an elected school board, study best practices from other elected school boards and look at ways to ensure authentic voice from a diverse group of stakeholders throughout the City of Chicago, all within public view," Ford said.

"I've heard from the community and the will of the people says that there should be an elected school board," said Ford in a recent interview with Austin Weekly News. "It's a big change and we should take it seriously and change it or not change it, but only after some real scrutiny and evaluation." 

Ford said that he will be a member of that task force and that other people are currently being considered for membership. 

The issue of an elected school board constitutes a significant wedge between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his challenger, 7th District Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. 

Emanuel, who has the power to appoint people to the seven-member school board with virtually no input or intrusion into the appointment process from City Council, is vociferously opposed to switching to an elected board. Many observers say that his power of appointment makes the board, and the multibillion dollar CPS budget under its control, a political tool for the mayor. 

Ford said that Emanuel's closing of 50 schools in 2013 is a reflection of the harm that can be done when unilateral power is aggregated in the hands of one person. 

"Had the Council been responsible for [appointing members of the board] we probably wouldn't have had those closures," he said, echoing a point that Garcia has made during his campaign. 

Garcia has said that he is for elected school boards and that, in 1995, when he was in a state representative, he voted against the bill that gave then-Mayor Daley the power to appoint school board members.

Ford said that he had pushed to get the task force implemented sooner, but that CPS officials preferred the later summer date—which, of course, would be after the mayoral elections.  

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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