Mayor Rahm Emanuel sees no need for voters to weigh in on the makeup of the school board.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel sees no need for voters to weigh in on the makeup of the school board. Credit: AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

Every now and then Mayor Emanuel makes a comment about life in Chicago that is so preposterous you have to laugh out loud.

So it was last week when he offered up the following explanation as to why he had once again stifled an attempt by independent aldermen to hold a citywide referendum on an elected school board:

“I don’t believe what we need right now is more politics in school.”

That’s got to be the most laughable observation he’s made since the one he made a few days before that, when he declared that the new basketball arena he’s building for DePaul University in the South Loop will require “no taxpayer support.”

Just to remind you, the arena is part of a larger project—including a Marriott hotel—that the mayor has already said will probably cost upwards of $1 billion in property and hotel tax money before it’s over.

But back to the school board. Contrary to what the mayor said, the Chicago Public Schools system is already infused with politics. In fact, it’s essentially an oligarchy in which the mayor has the power because he controls the purse strings.

Many activists, parents, teachers, and principals want to infuse it with some democracy. Or as much democracy as Chicago can possibly muster.

Back in the early 1990s, there was a brief moment when it was more or less a democracy. This was after the General Assembly adopted school reform legislation, which I call Reform I, giving local school councils control over budgets and curricula.

Former mayor Richard M. Daley didn’t like that system. So he got the General Assembly to pass what I think of as Reform II, which reversed Reform I and centralized most authority under the mayor.

Under the old system, the mayor appointed members to the school board who were recommended by a nominating committee of local school council members. Under our current system, the mayor appoints whomever he wants—after weeding out anyone who might have anything resembling an independent thought.

Having filled the board with rubber stamps, the mayor can effectively do what he wants with CPS and its budget. Property taxpayers pour in billions of dollars and the mayor doles them out as he sees fit, after telling everyone we’re so dead broke that only he can make the tough decisions about who gets what.

Parents are like Oliver Twist, coming before the mayor—empty bowls extended—to beg: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

At which point the mayor says, “What? You wicked, wicked parents.”

Then Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of the system, and David Vitale, the school board president, burst into song: “Consider yourself our friend!”

That would be Chicago Public Schools—the Musical. Which won’t be produced at a city school anytime soon, since Mayor Emanuel has pretty much cut off funding for theater programs.

Anyway, the system works reasonably well for the mayor. Whenever he’s feeling a little down in the polls, he dips into the pot and spoons out some more gruel.

For instance, he announced last year that he’d found the $17 million needed to build an extension to Payton College Prep, even though no one asked him for it.

Earlier this year he discovered the $60 million to build Obama College Prep, a new north-side selective enrollment school, though no one had asked for that either.

And now he’s found the money to turn Hancock High on the southwest side into a selective enrollment school, even though many of the locals want it to remain a neighborhood school.

Look, I said the system gave the mayor virtually unchecked control. I didn’t say he used it wisely.

From time to time, independent aldermen like John Arena, Bob Fioretti, and Scott Waguespack have tried to force the mayor to put the school board issue on the ballot in the form of a nonbinding referendum.

Their thought is that if enough people vote for an elected school board, the mayor will have no credible reason for denying it. Not that any of his reasons are credible to start with.

That said, I’ll give the mayor credit for one thing: he’s proved remarkably adept at keeping these referenda off the ballot.

In 2012, 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore blocked an attempt to put an elected school board referendum on the ballot, claiming Arena was minutes late in filing it.

And just last week the mayor outmaneuvered his foes by getting the City Council to put three other questions on the February ballot. This effectively kept the school board question off, since the law sets a limit of no more than three referenda on any ballot.

So now voters will get to weigh in on paid leave, treatment programs for city employees convicted of domestic violence, and public financing of campaigns.

Look, I’m not saying these are unimportant issues. But they’re not going to drive voters to the polls like an elected school board referendum.

My hunch is that the mayor’s opposition is based largely on the probability that the school board question would drive up turnout, at least this time around.

The elected school board idea is particularly popular in black south- and west-side wards, where the mayor is exceedingly unpopular and his aldermanic allies are vulnerable. That means a referendum on an elected school board would be one more reason—as if closing 50 schools wasn’t reason enough—for people to come out and vote.

But perhaps the mayor could still change his mind. In fact, he’s been saying nice things about his old foe Karen Lewis since she bowed out of the mayoral race because of illness. Lewis steadfastly supported an elected school board long before it was fashionable. If the mayor at least put the matter on the ballot, it would be a great way to show his ongoing appreciation for her.