For the third time in three years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council allies have used their political muscle to crowd off the ballot a referendum asking Chicago voters whether they favor a switch to an elected school board.
Instead, the City Council’s Rules Committee decided Tuesday to ask voters in the Feb. 24 city elections three non-binding, purely advisory questions on paid leave, mandatory treatment programs for city employees convicted of domestic violence and public financing for political campaigns.
Since only three referenda can be placed on the ballot, that guarantees there’s no room for the elected school board question — again.
“This is a crowding out of a question that’s been discussed citywide for the last 13, 14 months,” said Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd).
Ald. John Arena (45th) said he would “hate to think my colleagues are that crass,” but it’s obvious mayoral allies played “shenanigans” to block a referendum that would have shown overwhelming support for an elected school board.
“They’re afraid of the question,” Arena said, blasting Emanuel for continuing to support a “non-participatory board not accountable to voters.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) noted that an advisory referendum in limited precincts of his and other wards sailed through with 85 and 90 percent support from Chicago voters.
“It’s not just the elected school board. It’s about the whole education system being put to the test and the policies that the administration espouses versus what a lot of the voters out there would like to see,” Waguespack said, apparently referring to school closings, charter openings and devastating budget cuts at neighborhood schools.
“At least allow them to be asked the question of whether they want an elected school board. To prevent that question from being out there… is trying to defray the political cost that go with the decisions that the mayor… has made.”
Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) said she called up the three alternative questions — other than the elected school board referendum that’s been languishing in her committee for months — because the sponsors asked and Progressive Caucus champions of an elected school board didn’t.
But, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, acknowledged that Emanuel remains dead-set against an elected school board.
“If I were in their position — seeing the gains that they’ve made, seeing the improvements in educational outcomes, the increases in attendance, grades and people moving on to college — they would be fearful that it would be a step backward” to have an elected school board, the alderman said.
O’Connor said he once supported the switch to an elected school board only to change his mind after being convinced that it would “weaken minority representation and influence on the board” and at the Chicago Public Schools.
“When we were all for it, we were told it was a terribly expensive, terribly racist idea. If you draft districts in accordance with the population numbers, perhaps the influence of minority communities would be less than it is today,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor noted that the elected school board question still bottled up in committee does not spell out how many members an elected board would have, whether or not they would be paid and whether they would be elected at-large or from member districts.
“You’re asking for a popularity contest on the concept — not on an actual law. That sometimes is dangerous,” the mayor’s floor leader said.
Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st), co-sponsor of the paid leave question, said Progressive Caucus champions of an elected school board have only themselves to blame for the ballot question still stuck in committee.
“The aldermanic proponents of it are lazy. They don’t organize. They don’t get other aldermen on board. They want to have press conferences and have seven or eight people there. That’s why it doesn’t” get on the ballot, Moreno said.
“If they worked it with their colleagues like I worked plastic bags for two years, they might be able to get support. Because they’re lazy, it doesn’t get there.”
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.