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Garcia calls elected school board a “constitutional right”

Chicagoans have a “constitutional right” to elect their school board members, mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia argued Friday, vowing to make it happen one way or another — even if it takes a trip to federal court.

Garcia said one of his “first acts” as mayor would be to go to Springfield to reverse the 1995 legislation that gave the mayor control over Chicago Public Schools and “took away Council approval” of mayoral appointees to the Board of Education.

“I will go down to Springfield to change that legislation, so we can move toward an elected school board,” Garcia said.

“I’m hoping we’ll be successful. And if we weren’t, I would go to federal court to change that because I think the right to elect a school board is a constitutional right that comes from the right to elect those who govern an institution so vital to our city. Schools systems are, perhaps, the main government body that affects the lives of a majority of our citizens, especially minorities in Chicago.”

Previewing the education agenda he will unveil next week, Garcia also promised to call a halt to the “charter-mania” that has seen CPS fund more than 120 charter schools and make neighborhood schools — “the center of community life” — suffer as a result of those charters.

But he stopped short of promising to re-open some of the record 50 schools Emanuel closed in predominantly black South and West Side neighborhoods, alienating African-American voters who helped put the mayor in office.

“We’re not ready to make a commitment there. That’s a mess that he created. My job is not to clean up Rahm’s mess,” Garcia said.

“We’re trying to acertain where things are at and what we can responsibly address. What did the mayor claim would happen and what has actually happened?” Garcia said the students who never showed up to welcoming schools need to be accounted for.

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 hand-picked board.

Two months ago, Emanuel’s City Council allies used their political muscle for the third time in three years 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 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 referendums can be placed on the ballot, that appeared to guarantee that there would be no room for the elected school board question — again.

A coalition of community groups subsequently submitted petitions bearing thousands of signatures that, the Chicago Teachers Union contends, will give voters in 38 wards the opportunity to vote Feb. 24 on the nonbinding referendum.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, has made it clear 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 in a recent interview.

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 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.