In the 1990s, there was a controversy at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Mount Greenwood.
More than 1,000 people turned out in an election for the Local School Council.
The school council members then voted, as they had promised, not to renew the contract of the Ag School principal, Barbara Valerious. She was very unpopular.
As Crain’s Chicago Business noted at the time, “Over the past eight years, she has turned the school, which teaches a mostly minority student population the basics of agriculture, into one of the jewels of the city’s public schools system.
“Consider that 92% of its graduates go on to a four-year or junior college and that it has one of the highest test scores in the city and one of the lowest dropout rates. It enjoys corporate support from the Chicago Board of Trade and Quaker Oats Co.”
So why was Valerious demonized by local residents?
She wanted to expand the magnet school to 600 from 450 students. That would have meant more black teens moving through predominately white Mount Greenwood.
And students at the school, according to parents who appeared before the local school council, could be seen loitering on street corners and littering after class.
I covered the Local School Council meeting and can tell you that despite whispered racial epithets, for the record everyone swore the issue was mainly about littering.
Eventually, as I recall, Chicago CEO Paul Vallas stepped in with a heavy hand and saved Valerious’ job. Vallas also remembers eventually requiring that as part of the expansion, 25% of the enrollment be reserved for local students at the citywide magnet school. That seemed to appease most folks. For a time, the killing of rabbits nurtured by students at the Ag School farm stopped.
I mention all of this to remind people that elected school boards can be flawed.
But you know that because we hate all elected bodies. That includes the Chicago City Council, the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Congress.
In addition, Americans, who boast they are willing to fight and die for the flag and everything it represents, can’t find the time to vote.
About 3 in 10 registered voters in Chicago chose to vote in this year’s mayoral runoff election, one of the most hotly contested and highly publicized contests in the city’s history.
Would a school board election be likely to attract more interest?
I covered school board races in suburban Cook County for more than 30 years and can tell you that 10 to 20% turnouts were typical. Sometimes, there weren’t enough candidates to run for all the vacant seats.
And those school districts represented 67% of the average homeowner’s property tax bill. Everybody hates property taxes. But not enough to vote.
Of course, with more than $6 billion in CPS money on the line, you can bet that the teacher’s union in Chicago and charter school organizations, who oppose traditional public school systems, will spend lots of money getting their people elected if Chicago chooses to abandon its current system of allowing the mayor to appoint the school board.
Why do people think that’s such a bad system, by the way? Because they don’t trust the mayor they elected.
I don’t blame them. Elected officials can’t be trusted. Even Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would agree with that.
As a newspaper reporter, I saw dozens of really nice people elected to suburban school boards. Moms and Dads. Little League managers and people who ran bake sales. Church-going folk. But once elected, they often acted like lunatics.
They met secretly with school lawyers and administrators. They began talking in tongues, school board babble, incomprehensible to the rest of the world. They treated the public’s money as if it belonged to them.
It’s wonderful to see that despite all evidence to the contrary, people in Chicago still cling to the idea that elections are a good thing. Of course, they really don’t believe it.