Paul Vallas. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Why Vallas backs a hybrid school board

SHARE Why Vallas backs a hybrid school board
SHARE Why Vallas backs a hybrid school board

Paul Vallas, once considered the savior of the Chicago school system after he became its first CEO in 1995, doesn’t believe an elected school board would be any better than an appointed one.

“Appointed boards are dependent on the leadership of the mayor,” Vallas said. “This is way too much authority to be investing in one individual with no real accountability or transparency.

“On the other hand, elected boards are vulnerable to special interests because of the very low voter participation in school board elections.”


Typically, turnout is 20 percent or less in school board elections. So what does Vallas favor?

“I believe you need a hybrid board,” he said. “Part elected, part appointed. This gives the mayor a direct stake in the schools and affords the mayor the opportunity to ensure that experts are included in the board makeup. At the same time, it ensures greater community input through the elected members and provides accountability through greater transparency and public debate over issues that come before the board.

“I believe elected board members should be elected at large (citywide) and not elected from individual districts. I also believe the elections should be every four years on the date of the statewide office election or the mayoral election.”

While Republicans and Democrats in the Illinois Legislature can’t agree on much these days, this spring they overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of an elected school board in Chicago by votes of 105-9 in the House and 52-2 in the Senate. The Senate bill would have board members elected to represent different areas of the city.

Chicago, where all the board members are currently appointed by the mayor, is the only school district in Illinois that doesn’t elect its school board members.

Vallas noted that he worked under all three types of school board systems — appointed, elected and hybrid — while running school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, Bridgeport, Conn., and Louisiana.

Louisiana had a hybrid board, with some of its members appointed by the governor.

Vallas believes that a seven-member board, with three of those members appointed by the mayor, would work best.

“You have to have the mayor of Chicago actively involved in the public school system or it simply isn’t going to work,” Vallas said. “You need him in a position where he has to take responsibility for the performance of the school system. It’s important politically for him to be involved in the process. He has to have some skin in the game.”

In 1995, when Vallas was appointed CEO, the state gave control of Chicago Public Schools to the mayor during a massive financial crisis so bad that banks at one point refused to give the school district a loan.

The U.S. Secretary of Education had previously called the school system the worst in the nation.

Vallas is currently the chief administrator of Chicago State University, accepting that role after Gov. Bruce Rauner unsuccessfully tried to have him appointed president.

Rauner has indicated that he does not support legislation, backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, to elect the city’s board of education.

Having covered elected school boards in the Chicago suburbs for more than 30 years, I can say with confidence that they too can be corrupt, unresponsive and fail in their duty to educate children.

And since these positions are voluntary, anyone with the backing of a political party or special interest group can destroy an independent opponent.

The democratic process works only when people participate. And even then, as we have recently seen, a candidate who panders to the electorate, lies and makes exaggerated claims can sway a lot of voters.


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