In the aftermath of the federal corruption charges against former Chicago School Superintendent, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who now faces federal corruption charges for agreeing to kickback for a $20.5 million contract to her former employer from CPS, all eyes are on the future of the nation’s third largest school system, as it faces a budget shortfall of $480 million. It also faces the spectre of a teacher’s strike and more classroom cuts, perhaps as much as $8.7 million, according to some sources.
One recommendation is that Chicago have an elected school board, instead of the mayoral appointed one, that is currently employed. A recent proposal – HB 4268 – by the Illinois House of Representatives, introduced by Rep. Robert F. Martwick, was the subject of a Town Hall Meeting Thursday, by one of its cosponsors, Rep. Greg Harris, with an assembled guest panel, that represented the views of both the Chicago Teachers Union, the Cook County College Teachers Union, and two local grassroots organizations.
Apparent at the meeting was a growing sense of anger and frustration at a school board, and a system that many feel does a disservice to its students with draconian cuts, some schools have lost $750,000 from its budget, and with a 20 percent staff reduction.
Kurt Hilgendorf, representing the CTU noted that in the recent advisory referendum in the last election, 37 wards voted for an elected school board, “more than for Rahm Emanuel [to remain in office].” He also noted that Chicago’s appointed board had been in place since 1995, and that it “is bad for policymaking,” and “has limited participation for parents,” but is ultimately “bad for policymaking,” especially with “the rapid decline in neighborhood school enrollment,” which are being drained by the charter schools favored by the board.
Hilgendorf also upped the ante by declaring that “we need the decision making ability to get what we need.” Any change would require the assent of the state legislature, and a gubernatorial signature. But, even with that assent, getting there over the already promised veto by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, may take a supermajority noted Harris, “with 71 in the House, and 37 in the Senate.”
Opinions do vary for an elected school board, and former Alderman Dick SImpson, now an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in 2012 commented in an article for the Chicago Journal: “An elected school board would get the voice of citizens between the near dictatorial control of Mayor Emanuel and opposition by the Chicago Teacher’s Union. We citizens pay for the school system and we parents depend upon the system to educate our children. We should have a voice separate from the mayor’s that can provide a check and balance to both the mayor and the union.”
He also issued a cautionary note “there are problems. First, if we held school board elections citywide rather than by district, we could end up with racial imbalance. Ninety percent of the students in the system are black and Hispanic but most of the elected board could be white. Second, with more than 600 schools to supervise, it is unclear how much any school board — appointed or elected — can do to really govern the system. Third, when we had elections of other local agencies like Model Cities, the political machine controlled the outcome in order to control the patronage jobs. The Democratic Party could control the outcome of school board elections as well.”
In a recent interview with Simpson he emphasized the probability still of political party domination, but also highlight even with district wide elections, “that some of these county board districts are huge, and many people may not even know their county board members.”
He also emphasized that there could be an increased role for different participants whether they are parents, teachers unions, or others, “all with different ideological positions,and each with their own slate,and from their own perspective.” Noting that while an elected board is not a perfect panacea, especially for quick solutions for CPS indebtedness, Simpson concluded that, “on balance we need a positive start [towards change] and no solution, no financial solution, or representation problem can be solved easily.”
Of the 863 school districts in Illinois, the only one that does not have an elected school board is Chicago, bucking the national trend, towards those that are elected, excepting New York CIty and Philadelphia, claimed Christopher Ball of the grassroots organization, “Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education.”
Simpson noted three years ago, 90 percent, and greater, of Chicago public school students are Black or Hispanic, and a citywide elected board could tip heavily in favor of Whites, and disenfranchise students of color; but the move now is towards a proposed district election, rather than citywide.
Naysayers do abound, and most recently in an editorial for the Chicago Tribune, Peter Cunningham executive director of Education Post, a Chicago not-for-profit organization that supports education reform, and former assistant secretary for communications in the U.S. Department of Education and spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, disagreed and said, “For the most part, elected school boards in large urban districts perpetuate the status quo. Examples abound, from the corrupt and ineffective pre-Katrina New Orleans school board to Los Angeles today, where paralyzing debates and acrimonious seven-figure school board elections are now the norm.”
WIth the Byrd-Bennett fiasco, many parents, legislators, and others want tighter control over finances, and they think that it can be had with an elected board, yet Cunningham says just the opposite might happen: “Chicago mayors have directed billions of non education dollars to support schoolchildren. Without control, they may not.”
Hovering in the background behind these discussions is the spectre of another teachers strike with the breakdown in negotiations, this summer, between the CTU and the board. A recent straw poll of its members showed a 97 percent approval rate, out of 95 percent of the membership, should one be needed, according to the their president, Karen Lewis; although final stages of negotiations are to take place later this month. Notwithstanding she also advised teachers to save 25 percent of their pay, should a strike be called.
At issue is teachers paying more for their pensions, a compromise that was made in the last agreement, in lieu of a raise, but also an evaluation structure that leaves little wiggle room for those that are good teachers, but who with one downgrade could be put in a “needs improvement” category; and also a tiered system tied to student performance, that needs revision from the 2012 agreement.
What was notably missing in Lewis’ remarks, noted the Tribune, was the inclusion of a three-person review panel that would also broker a potential agreement with a “fact-finding” process. They also reported that later this month CTU will hold a public demonstration on Nov. 23, the same day that they want negotiations to “advance to the next level in a show of force amid deadlocked talks.”
Some observers see that demand as a way to kickstart the process of renewed negotiations, although it could lead to a strike if there is failure in reaching an agreement. Members were also told by Lewis, “It is clear that no meaningful progress toward an agreement has been achieved despite our best efforts,” in a letter obtained by the Tribune.
The district, in a differing timetable, wants to begin those talks in February of 2016, but the later date, caused Lewis to remark, “We believe such a long delay is both unrealistic and will actually harm the bargaining process.”
The other important issue for CPS is the budget, or to be specific the $480 million dollars that is needed to balance the budget and avoid teacher layoffs and increased class sizes. In an Op-ed piece, Forrest Claypool CEO, noted that this was needed from the governor, but with the intense partisan stand he has taken which demands both tort reform and changes in collective bargaining, the money seems unlikely.
The next few months are going to prove to be challenging as they are problematic for Chicago schools and it is also unlikely that there will be easy solutions. While some observers see this as business as usual, others see a system held hostage by the ghosts of previous decisions, gone bad, poor oversight by City Hall, and a system that takes race and class into a loss, for the students.