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Aldermen want voters to weigh in on electing school board

Updated: August 20, 2012 11:50AM

Fed up with the “top-down” decisions made by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked Board of Education, a handful of Chicago aldermen are giving momentum to the grass roots movement toward an elected school board.

Aldermen representing as many as eight wards across the city are maneuvering to place advisory referenda on the Nov. 6 ballot asking their voters if they want to make the switch to an elected board.

Chicago has the only school district in the state that does not have an elected school board. Instead, the board is comprised of seven mayoral appointees confirmed by the City Council. Only the Illinois General Assembly could make the switch to an elected board.

Ald. John Arena (45th) said he decided to introduce an ordinance putting the question on the ballot in his Northwest Side ward after being approached by “a number of very vocal parents’ groups” that were already gathering signatures for similar ballot questions at the precinct level.

They include, Raise Your Hands and the Kenwood-Oakland Community Council (KOCO).

“Over the course of the last couple years with school closures, parents feel shut out of the conversation,” Arena said.

“They go to the budget hearings. They voice their concerns. And then, the budget is passed. There’s no adjustments to anything that comes out of CPS. It just basically walks through. For parents to have to sit in a field house in order to compel CPS to give them a library, that’s pretty extreme. That board should be compelled to hear what the population thinks because they’re elected.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), added, “It’s not just this board. CPS traditionally has not always been collaborative with the communities. When they make decisions, they make them from a top-down perspective… . When you have an elected school board, they’re closer to the people. You can hold them accountable.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said even a partially-elected school board would be more responsive to community concerns.

“When you’re talking about school turnarounds, for instance, an elected board might say, ‘Let’s look more closely at what we’re doing to the students who would be booted out of those schools.’ They might look more closely at the finances of the board and how budgets are adopted,” Waguespack said.

“We’ve tried it for 20-plus years with Mayor Daley and, now, the new mayor and we’re in the same position we were before. … We’re pretty much told, ‘Here’s our policy position. Here’s the direction we’re gonna go.’”

Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) argued that “anybody who has a right to raise your property taxes should be elected by the people whose taxes they are raising.”

Emanuel’s school board has raised property taxes to the legal limit for two straight years — by a total of $212 million.

Five months ago, the board unanimously agreed to close or phase out seven chronically failing schools and turn around 10 others, to jeers of, “Shame on you!”

Joining that standing-room-only crowd was the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who argued that an elected school board would have been more responsive than the mayoral appointees who, Jackson claimed, “sat there reading papers while we were talking,” then voted like a “rubber stamp.”

Others seeking the referenda include aldermen in the 2nd, 6th, 15th and 36th wards.

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