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Elected school board question may test mayoral candidates

When you look at the state of Illinois politics, one of the last things the average voter probably wants is more people to elect.

That’s more politicians, right?

Well, what if it’s for the local school board?

Municipalities in Illinois already elect their school board members.

Except for the city of Chicago.

A coalition of neighborhood groups and members of the Chicago Teachers Union have collected enough signatures in 37 wards to pose a nonbinding question to Chicagoans on their February ballots: Do you want an elected school board?

We’ve seen this push, through a community-labor collaborative, elsewhere in the nation. It’s happening in Newark, New Jersey, where Mayor Ras Baraka campaigned — and was elected — on the issue of “taking back our schools,” challenging changes put in place by predecessor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie.

In the Chicago mayor’s race, there’s sharp division on the matter.

Not surprisingly, Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposes electing trustees for the Chicago Board of Education.

He now appoints members to that board.

“One of the primary reasons the mayor supports the existing appointed school board is that it allows for the empowerment of Local School Councils of parents and teachers to make the decisions that are best for the children in their neighborhood,” said Emanuel spokesman Steve Mayberry.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) is vehemently in favor of what Emanuel opposes. And so is Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, though he came late to the party after initially saying he had “toiled with this issue.”

Fioretti is clear on the matter.

“We’re the only one in the whole state that’s not an elected school board?” Fioretti said in an interview. “Aren’t we shaking our head and saying: “what’s going on here? I think the school board needs it. It would reflect the diversity of our city.”

An election on such a local level, he argues, would empower communities and, Fioretti argues those elected would vote in sync with their communities.

The driver of the issue in Chicago was Emanuel’s controversial decision to close 50 schools in the city in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and economically struggling segments of the city. An uproar over the closures followed, including over children who had to then walk through gang territories to get to their new schools. It prompted a broadening of Safe Passage routes to ensure school children weren’t harmed.

“They didn’t listen to anybody. They didn’t listen to the thousands who came out to the forums. They didn’t listen to the administrative judges. So the whole thing was a charade,” Fioretti said. “It’s just one-sided, especially this one where it favors charter schools and alienated communities.”

Garcia, meanwhile, put out a policy statement on education calling for an elected school board, blasting the current panel as working in step with the 5th Floor of City Hall, rather than taxpayers.

“This is the board that closed our schools and cut the education budget, following Mayor Emanuel’s orders,” Garcia said. “Would this have happened with an elected board, responsible to the citizens?”

Garcia said if elected one of his first acts would be to ask state lawmakers to “revoke the mayoral control legislation and let Chicago take its place with the rest of Illinois by having an elected board.”

If that doesn’t happen, Garcia says he’ll challenge an appointed school board legally with a federal voting-rights lawsuit.

Make no mistake, there are political calculations in either an elected or appointed scenario.

Critics of an elected school board point to other states where school board elections have become politicized, with heaps of money poured into these hotly contested races.

Fioretti has an answer to that: place spending caps on local elections.

Of course, there were once spending caps in the mayor’s race, and look where that got us. Emanuel’s campaign fund is overflowing with some $10 million in cash and no limits as to how he spends it.

In this campaign, being the face for this grass-roots push for a representative school board would link up nicely with the question that is to appear on most city ballots in February.

It also links up nicely with unions that are rich with campaign money at a time when Garcia and Fioretti badly need it.