Since taking over Chicago schools in 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley has directly appointed each member of the Chicago Board of Education. But a parent advocacy group says the board has become unaccountable to anybody but the mayor, and the time has come for board members to be elected by voters.

Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) is circulating petitions calling for a citywide referendum on the November ballot on whether the school board should be elected. The Chicago Teachers Union is supporting the petition drive. At least 40,000 signatures of registered voters are needed by Aug. 18.

Leaders of PURE and the teachers’ union say that anger against the board has been building for some time, and hit a critical mass in February when a decision was approved to close or consolidate 18 public schools for low attendance or poor test scores. The closures are part of a sweeping plan to overhaul failing schools and to open 100 new schools under the Renaissance 2010 plan.

Hundreds of parents protested the closings—particularly of the small schools at the Orr High campus—and jammed the board meeting and hearings. They argued that some schools with effective programs were being targeted, and accused the board of making decisions too quickly. The proposed closures were announced in January, and the board finalized its decision a month later. Only one school, Abbott Elementary, was spared.

“It seemed as if the board was determined to close 18 schools in complete opposition to community input,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE. “There’s just a sense that they’re not really accountable to the community.” Two other groups, the South Austin Coalition and Blocks Together, support the effort, she says.

Sandra Schultz, educational issues coordinator for the teachers’ union, says many teachers are concerned that the board is “railroading” public opinion. The union isn’t taking an official position on elected versus appointed boards but says the question should be raised with voters.

CPS spokeswoman Ana Vargas says the board is listening to the public. “The Board of Education is appointed by the mayor, who is an elected official,” she says. “So therefore, we’re held accountable to the community. We hold an open meeting every month that is televised where the Board of Education hears public opinions.”

The district declined to make board members available for comment.

Advisory, not binding

PURE faces formidable obstacles to realize its goal of an elected school board. Woestehoff does not have an exact count, but estimates that hundreds, rather than thousands, of signatures have been gathered since May. Even if enough signatures are collected to get the referendum on the ballot, and it receives a majority of votes, the school board would not change immediately. Under state law, referendums are advisory and not binding.

Woestehoff says PURE’s initial focus is to educate people about the issue. The outpouring of protests over school closings shows that the community is ready for change, she says.

“There is more interest and involvement in public education in Chicago than there used to be,” Woestehoff asserts. “The electorate is positioned to make better decisions about the school board.”

The petition drive comes at a time when the Board of Education and local school councils are in a power struggle. Currently, elected councils of parents and community members, created in 1988, have the authority to approve individual school budgets and select principals. School Board President Rufus Williams has made no secret of his desire to neuter LSCs by taking away some of their power around hiring and firing principal. (See related story.)

Earlier this year, representatives of three LSCs sued Chicago Public Schools after their councils had been replaced with advisory groups appointed by the Board of Education. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in April. According to the ruling, the law that created the councils allows the school system to change a council from elected to advisory when a large campus is being converted to new, smaller schools. (The representatives have said they plan to appeal the dismissal.)

Most school boards elected

School reform efforts in other urban districts have often resulted in more authority for mayors and changes to the school board structure.

Nationwide, 96 percent of school board members are elected, rather than appointed, according to the National School Boards Association. Beyond Chicago, exceptions with appointed school boards include Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. In New York City, the mayor and the schools chancellor oversee schools; community education councils, jointly selected by parents and borough presidents, serve as advisory bodies.

In Illinois, Chicago is the only district with an appointed, rather than elected, school board. Before 1995, board members were chosen by the mayor from a slate of nominees that were provided by the Chicago School Board Nominating Commission. The 28-member commission, most of whom were community leaders, screened applicants and gave the mayor a choice of three candidates for each position. Critics of the system, including the mayor, complained that the nominating process was cumbersome and rife with politicking.

But proponents of an elected school board say the current appointments are just as political. Schultz says that many teachers feel that Daley has stacked the board with business executives. No board member works as an educator.

“I’m sure there are some things in the schools that could benefit from a business background,” she says. “But each student body is different—the demographics and the teachers themselves. Each school needs to make certain decisions for themselves and not just the blanket business-type decision approach. There are too many variables.”

Reginald Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, says the group does not take a position on whether a board should be elected or appointed.  Each structure has advantages and disadvantages.

“Obviously if you’re elected, you’re more likely to represent the views of your constituents,” Felton says. “If you’re appointed, you may have to represent the view of the person who appointed you.”

Felton adds that appointed members tend to be people who bring a certain skill to the board that is needed. If the school district is dealing with finance and bond issues, the mayor may appoint a member who is an expert in that area. Elected board members may not have such skills.

A few school districts have “hybrid” boards made up of both elected and appointed members, Felton says. During reform initiatives, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., had hybrid boards and later switched to appointed members.

According to research from the school boards association, takeovers of school districts have yielded mixed results.

West Virginia took over one school district in 1992, but the district was turned over to local control four years later. New Jersey lawmakers axed the Jersey City school board 13 years ago, and the district still has not been able to meet standards set by the state for making the district independent.

Since Daley took over Chicago schools, test scores and graduation rates have improved. Still, teacher turnover remains high, and more than half of all students do not meet academic standards.

Phuong Ly is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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