Progressive Caucus pushing citywide referendum on elected school board

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The City Council’s Progressive Caucus is pushing for a citywide referendum on an elected school board,  fed up with the top-down decisions made by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked Board of Education.

“Closings, cuts, bulldozing buildings in the middle of the day after subterfuge to get them out of the building,” said Ald. John Arena (45th), referring to last month’s demolition of the Whittier Elementary School fieldhouse.

“This is a non-functional system. We need a board that’s accountable to the community it serves. It’s not accountable to the people who pay their salaries and pay for the system.”

Chicago has the only school district in the state that does not have an elected school board. Instead, the board is comprised of seven mayoral appointees confirmed by the City Council.

Only the Il. General Assembly could make the switch to an elected board. But, an overwhelming vote in a citywide referendum would clearly give momentum to the grass-roots movement by parents groups angered by painful budget cuts and nearly 50 school closings authorized by Emanuel’s handpicked board.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Arena introduced a resolution placing the question on the  the March 18 primary ballot. The resolution was co-signed by his ten colleagues in the Progressive Caucus and  referred to the Rules Committee, where legislation routinely goes to die.

“They don’t want to have the discussion because they’re afraid of the discussion,” Arena said.

“Maybe it’s better in Rules. It’s a body of the whole. Let’s get 50 aldermen discussing what an elected school board would look like in Chicago. There are hybrids with some appointed and some elected members. We can regionalize elections to get representation from all areas. We can put limits on spending, so we have equitable elections that are not just bought.”

Last fall, the grass-roots push for an elected school board gained momentum when the idea attracted overwhelming support from voters in parts of 35 wards.

Despite a parliamentary maneuver by a mayoral ally that blocked referenda in ten Chicago wards, education activists in 327 precincts went door-to-door to gather the signatures needed to put the elected school board question on the ballot.

By an 86.6 percent margin, 65,763 Chicagoans said they would prefer an elected school board to the current system of mayoral appointees.

Arena put the question on the ballot in his Northwest Side ward after being approached by vocal parents’ groups that were already gathering signatures for similar ballot questions at the precinct level. They included Raise Your Hands and the Kenwood-Oakland Community Council (KOCO).

Emanuel’s school board has raised property taxes to the legal limit for three straight years—by at total of $300 million.

Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) has argued that, “Anybody who has a right to raise your property taxes should be elected by the people whose taxes they are raising.”

Still, Emanuel has made it clear he does not support an elected school board.

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