Voters could soon get to say if they think Chicago Public Schools should have an elected school board — a potential rebuke to nearly 20 years of mayoral control of the city’s school system.
A coalition of progressive groups and organized labor said Sunday that they have gathered enough petition signatures to place an advisory referendum on the ballot, asking voters what they think.
The advisory referendum, which would appear on February’s mayoral ballot, would be non-binding. The state Legislature would ultimately need to approve any change to the way CPS board members are selected — which they did in 1995, giving then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the schools.
The coalition says the referendum would allow voters to express displeasure with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose hand-selected school board and CEO presided over the record closing of 50 public schools in predominantly black South and West Side neighborhoods.
“He has the power to appoint the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. He has the power to appoint the board members for the Chicago Board of Education.That’s too much power to give to one person,” Jawanza Malone, of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said Sunday while rallying signature collectors at Service Employees International Union headquarters near Cermak and Halsted.
“When they look at us and say, ‘We don’t need an elected school board because that just puts politics in education’ — what do they think is there now? … You have one person controlling the lives of millions.”
Steve Mayberry, a spokesman for Emanuel’s reelection campaign, did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
Resentment over school closings has created a political opening for progressive groups.
The referendum campaign is affiliated with the Chicago Teachers Union, whose charismatic president Karen Lewis had considered challenging Emanuel. Lewis dropped out of the race after revealing she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Democratic Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia stepped in to fill the void she created.
Kristen Crowell, executive director of Illinois Working Families, is leading the referendum campaign. She’s the same woman who headed an effort to counter policies by Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, raising $50 million along the way.
“This is a long-term strategy,” Crowell said. “Obviously we understand we are going to need the state Legislature in Springfield to act in order to have a fair elected representative school board here in Chicago.”
“While we have an immediate goal of putting this on the ballot for February24th, there is also a legislative strategy,” Crowell said. “We will be meeting one-on-one with our legislators to say, ‘We need your help, and we expect you to act on behalf the city of Chicago, our parents, our teachers, our children in Springfield.’”
The coalition said more than 50,000 signatures have been gathered, which will be submitted to the city’s Board of Election Commissioners on Monday. Aside from Illinois Working Families, the coalition includes the Grassroots Education Movement, Grassroots Illinois Action and some smaller community organizations.
In order to survive any challenge seeking to exclude the question from the ballot, organizers said they intend to turn in as many as twice the needed amount of petition signatures.
The group says 500 volunteers have spent the past two months canvassing the city.
Chicago is the only city in the state — and one of only a handful across the county — that does not have an elected school board, according to the coalition.