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Referendum on elected school board kept off March ballot

CPS CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett address Chicago Public School Board Educatiprior board vote closing 50 Chicago public school Chicago Public School headquarters

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett address the Chicago Public School Board of Education prior the board vote on closing 50 Chicago public school at Chicago Public School headquarters May 22, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: January 11, 2014 6:16AM

For the second time in two years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s allies have used their political muscle to keep off the ballot a referendum asking Chicago voters whether they favor a switch to an elected school board.

Instead, the City Council’s Finance Committee decided Monday to ask March 18 primary voters whether:

◆ They favor a cab fare hike.

◆ The Illinois General Assembly should ban high-capacity magazines.

◆ Gun owners should be allowed to carry concealed weapons in restaurants.

Since only three referenda can be placed on the ballot, that guarantees there’s no room for the elected school board question.

“They’re afraid to face public opinion,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus.

“Clearly the people of this city want an elected school board,” he said. ”This administration does not want an elected school board. They want to keep control and corporate control over our schools.”

Ald. John Arena (45th) added, “Power doesn’t like to concede too much. But this shouldn’t be about that. This should be about how do we get a voice for the citizens of Chicago in how their schools are run.”

But Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) candidly acknowledged the decision to crowd out the elected school board question.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with giving up power. . . . The concern is that it’s a blind referendum that doesn’t tell you anything about what you would be creating. Is it seven members? Is it 15? Are they paid members? Do they have a staff? What are they asking you to create?” O’Connor said.

“It’s kind of a fake question. They’re not putting any meat on it. If you’re going to single-member districts, then you have to worry about minority representation. Will it be consistent in any way with the student population?”

O’Connor noted that aldermen toyed with the idea of putting an elected school board referendum on the ballot during the 1980s, only to drop the idea.

“It was soundly rejected after it became clear to us the problems it would create by way of minority representation, trying to draw boundaries and creating a whole new expensive infrastructure,” said O’Connor, former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee.

“An elected school board would be a complete reversal of where the country is going. The trend in major cities is to put the burden of success on the mayor because there is one office that’s accountable. If you spread it out among members, how do you ever determine who is accountable?”

Chicago has the only school district in the state that does not have an elected school board. Instead, the board is composed of seven mayoral appointees confirmed by the City Council.

Only the Legislature could make the switch to an elected school board. But an overwhelming vote in a citywide referendum would give momentum to the grass-roots movement by parents groups angered by painful budget cuts, nearly 50 school closings and three straight years of up-to-the-limit property tax hikes by Emanuel’s handpicked board.

Last year, a parliamentary maneuver by a mayoral ally blocked a similar referendum in 10 Chicago wards.

That forced education activists in 327 precincts to go door to door to gather the signatures needed to put the elected school board question on the ballot. Out of almost 76,000 votes cast, 86.6 percent — 65,763 Chicagoans — said they would prefer an elected board to the current system of mayoral appointees.

In September, Arena introduced a resolution placing the elected school board question on the March 18 ballot. The ordinance was referred to the Rules Committee, the traditional burial ground for legislation the mayor wants to kill.


Twitter: @fspielman

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