Valerie F. Leonard

The Chicago Board of Education has been appointed by the mayor since its inception in 1872. The Board of Education currently has seven members who serve staggered terms. The mayor appoints the board, its president and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Chicago is the only city in the State of Illinois that has this arrangement.

There has been a lot of “back and forth” as to whether or not CPS should have an elected school board. Some people who are opposed to the notion argue that Chicago has enough layers of bureaucracy and corruption, and we do not need to compound the situation by having yet another elected body.

Others believe that we should have a combination of elected and appointed members. People who oppose this idea believe the board should be either all elected or all appointed, and that having a mixture would cause confusion and division based on whether the member is elected versus appointed.

The issues confronting our public school system are complex, and cannot all be resolved by having an elected school board, in and of itself. Even so, I believe that having an elected school board is the best option for CPS to select board members at this time. Here are my reasons:

  1. The CPS board members are appointed by the Mayor and not elected by the people. They answer to the mayor and ignore the community.
  2. Some members of the board voted to raise the CPS property taxes to the highest amounts allowed by the law. At the same time, they have lobbied to lower property taxes for themselves. Some residents of communities like North Lawndale have seen their property taxes increase at a faster rate than people from other parts of the city, in spite of the fact that property values are decreasing and many home owners are on fixed incomes.
  3. North Lawndale is the target area for school closings, turnarounds and other educational experiments that can distract our students. Yet, there is not one person on the CPS board from the West Side.
  4. Even though the board is made up of business people, Chicago Public Schools just proposed a budget that will spend all the cash reserves for next year. As a result, their credit score was lowered. CPS must now pay higher interest rates. The more money they spend on interest, the less money will be available for the classroom.
  5. Last year, the City had over $1.2 billion in surplus from its tax increment financing fund, money that is intended for economic development and job creation. About half of this money would have gone to CPS if it weren’t put in the TIF fund. The current board refuses to push for reforms that would allow excess TIF funds to go back to the schools. Instead, the unused funds collect interest, and CPS raises taxes to cover their expenses. We need school board members who can feel our pain, have a genuine concern for our community and take action. In short, we need a school board elected by the people, for the people.

Ideally, the elected school board should be structured to attract a good mix of people from around the City of Chicago. The board should be geographically and ethnically diverse, include members with various skill sets, including business management, law, public education and policy and advocacy.

We are very happy that state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford is sponsoring HB 5727, to create a task force that will study the optimal governance structure and process to ensure efficiency and representation from a broad cross section of stakeholders in the City of Chicago.

It is our hope that the democratic process will lead us to increased civic engagement and greater opportunities for input on how best to run our schools from parents, students, voters and taxpayers.

Valerie F. Leonard is co-founder of The Lawndale Alliance.

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