I’ve covered elected school boards for 30 years. Let me tell you a few problems I’ve seen.

Voter turnout is traditionally rock-bottom, at 16%. And among superintendents hired by these boards, fraud, embezzlement and outright stealing aren’t uncommon.

SHARE I’ve covered elected school boards for 30 years. Let me tell you a few problems I’ve seen.
Demonstrators outside City Hall in March 2021 want an elected school board in Chicago

Members of the Grassroots Education Movement, made up of parents of Chicago Public Schools students and community leaders, demonstrate outside City Hall in March 2021 for an elected school board.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Here’s something interesting: Only 16% of eligible voters traditionally turn out for suburban school board elections, even though 67% of their property tax bill is used to fund their local public schools.

You’re talking about two things precious to every American: Their children and their money. They ought to care, right? But most folks don’t know anything about the candidates running for school board and fewer care about the daily business of running the schools unless there’s a teacher accused of molesting children or teaching Huck Finn.

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I am writing about education here, which hardly anyone likes to read about, because there’s a battle in the state Legislature on whether to create an elected school board in Chicago, replacing the current seven-member board appointed by the mayor.

The Illinois House passed legislation earlier this year that would create a 21-member elected school board in Chicago. Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said he favors a hybrid model that would quickly transition to a fully elected board.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has indicated she supports the hybrid model, with Chicago’s mayor still appointing the majority of members.

Fraud, embezzlement and more

As a suburban newspaper columnist, I covered elected school boards for 30 years. Let me tell you a few of the problems I witnessed in that time.

School boards routinely hire school superintendents to run things because the members themselves know about nothing about running a school system.

I’m not even talking about anything as large as the Chicago Public Schools, with its 300,000 or so students, almost 22,000 teachers and $8.4 billion budget.

Suburban school districts are much smaller and should, in theory, be easier for elected school board members to govern.

Yet, in affluent south suburban Lincoln-Way, it was discovered some years back that at least $50,000 was spent to build and operate Superdog, a dog obedience training school that provided no benefit to the schools in the district. That was only one of the many instances of alleged fraud and embezzlement listed in a federal grand jury indictment of a former superintendent once hailed as the best in Illinois.

A few miles east, in Sauk Village, a much poorer suburban school district, a school superintendent began kicking students out of school because they failed to pay their milk money bills. He refused to graduate students who had failed to pay their fees. He bragged about a zero-tolerance policy.

It was discovered this mope used $68,000 in district money to pay his daughters’ college tuition, gave a $72,000 lighting contract to a friend in exchange for a kick-back and used district money to buy a signed Mike Ditka football and other memorabilia.

Investigators found $700,000 in cash stashed throughout the fellow’s home.

Elected school board members said they had “no clue” what the school superintendent was up to. They trusted him to run things.

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I covered a court hearing where a 6-year-old was expelled from another school district for bringing a bullet to class in a tin full of crayons. The child claimed a 10-year-old cousin had put the bullet in there while he was in his home waiting for his own mother to pick him up after school. The school board said it didn’t matter. They had a zero-tolerance policy.

The judge looked at the lawyer for the school board attorney, looked at the 6-year-old and said, “You’re kicking this child out of school forever because of this? Are you out of your minds?” He ordered the child be put back in class.

In yet another school district, elected school board members voted to spend millions to expand three high schools in order to get the votes on a bond referendum necessary to expand the one school that actually required enlargement due to enrollment. Voters approved.

As for Chicago, I can’t predict what will happen with an elected school board. Maybe one-in-three voters will even be interested enough to turn out for the first election.

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