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Still time to get it right on an elected school board for Chicago

The biggest problem is the size. Twenty-one members. Twice as big as any other school board in the nation. Does Chicago really need 21 more elected politicians?

Students head to class at Lane Tech College Prep High School on the North Side, Monday morning, April 19, 2021
Students head to class at Lane Tech High School earlier this year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

A small window of opportunity remains to fix the deep and dangerous flaws in a just-passed bill to create an elected school board for Chicago, but the window is closing fast.

The most glaring weakness in the bill, one that simply must be fixed before this ill-considered legislation becomes law, is the proposed size of the elected school board. It should be crystal clear to anyone that an absurdly oversized board of 21 people is a disaster-in-waiting.

A school board that’s nearly half the size of City Council? A school board that’s more than twice the size of the current biggest elected school board in the country, the nine-member board in Houston?

A 21-member elected board will be unmanageable, plain and simple. It is “unreasonable,” though Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday maintained the opposite.

It will open a Pandora’s box of infighting and messy deal-making in the worst Chicago tradition. Twenty-one more elected politicians are not about to make education better for Chicago’s 340,000 public school children.

We continue to believe that the best interests of Chicago’s school children would be a hybrid school board, partially appointed and partially elected. But if the Legislature is dead-set on a fully elected board, they should at least create a board that stands an honest chance of success.

Count on this, fellow Chicagoans: The average voter will have no way to hold these 21 board members accountable, as a body, in any meaningful way. Elections will be bought and paid for by others.

A reasonable fix would be to reduce the size of the elected board to, say, seven members. We might at least get to know all their names.

The elected school board bill passed in the House on Wednesday, having already cleared the Senate. But a motion to reconsider was filed after the vote by its House sponsor, state Rep. Delia Ramirez of Chicago, who wants to make last-minute changes before sending it to Pritzker, who on Thursday said he will sign it.

Instead, Pritzker should veto it. It’ll take courage on his part, given the strong support the bill has in the progressive circles he is loathe to cross.

But tough calls come with the job.

There are other problems with the bill, as well.

As it stands, it fails to address the entangled finances of the city and Chicago Public Schools, which are two separate taxing bodies. How will CPS make up the difference if Chicago’s mayor, no longer in charge of the schools, balks at a continued city subsidy?

And the bill fails to address the explosive problem of campaign financing. If there are no firm limits, the board is even more sure to be controlled by interest groups and the well-heeled, as happened in that $17 million board election in Los Angeles.

The voice of everyday working parents will be left out.

We know we’re likely spitting into the wind at this point. But we can’t let this go. It’s too important to Chicago’s future. The best course of action, to address these issues and others that even backers of the bill privately agree are problematic, would be for legislators to return to the negotiating table.

Come up with something more reasonable, while the window is open.

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