The current board, all appointed by Mayor Lightfoot, none elected by the people
The current board, all appointed by Mayor Lightfoot, none elected by the people Credit: chicago board of education

At the risk of sounding like Richard Nixon, I want to make something perfectly clear . . .

My support for an elected school board is not a knee-jerk reaction to the people who oppose it.

Namely that’s a coalition of the civic, corporate, and editorial elite of Chicago, who are more than happy to keep the schools controlled by a mayor they think they can count on to do what they want to do when it comes to dividing up the economic-development pie.

In other words, their opposition to an elected school board has little to do with anything remotely connected to what goes on in a classroom and much more to do with doling out handouts to powerful interests who don’t need them.

Oh, I know that sounds cynical. And reading it, you might conclude that I must have spent the last 40 years of my life following Chicago politics to be so jaded.

And you would be right. So, OK—maybe part of the reason I’m for an elected school board is because of the people who oppose it.

Let me point out that much of the opposition comes from the same cast of characters who were cheerleaders for really atrocious mayoral ideas over the past 15 or so years. A list of money-wasters that includes . . .

Mayor Daley’s Olympics, Mayor Rahm’s South Loop basketball/hotel scam (the money wound up going to Navy Pier), Mayor Rahm’s $1.3 billion Lincoln Yards boondoggle, and, of course, the failed effort by Mayor Rahm and Governor Rauner to fork over billions to Amazon.

So far there have been no super-duper-bad, money-wasting ideas from Mayor Lightfoot, which suggests that she’s a) less of a tool of corporate elites, or b) she’s been so preoccupied with the pandemic she’s had no time to come up with new ways to waste our tax dollars by doling them out to rich people who don’t need them.

Take your pick, Chicago.

Anyway, the reason the elected school board is on my mind is that I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of op-ed pieces and editorials from corporate leaders and from groups like the Commercial Club urging Chicagoans to stick with an appointed board.

Working from the assumption that there are no coincidences in life, I’ve concluded that Mayor Lightfoot is rounding up corporate support as she takes her opposition to an elected board another step. That is—she’s planning to propose a hybrid plan that would mix elected members with mayoral appointees. With the mayor having the greatest say, most likely.

At the moment, there is an elected school board bill on state legislators’ agenda.

It’s sponsored by northwest-side state senator Rob Martwick, who’s been championing the issue for years. Martwick says it’s an outrage that Chicago remains the only municipality in the state without an elected school board.

His bill—sponsored in the house by state representative Delia Ramirez—would divide Chicago into 20 districts. Each district would elect one school board member. And there’d be a school board president elected citywide.

In the past, former senate president John Cullerton did Mayor Rahm’s bidding, killing Martwick’s bill in the senate.

But Cullerton has retired—replaced by Oak Park senator Don Harmon. He didn’t bring the bill to a vote in the lame-duck session earlier this year, largely as a favor to Mayor Lightfoot, who opposes it, even though as a candidate she supported the concept.

Why the mayoral opposition? Well, there’s the publicly stated reason, and then there’s my theory.

The public reason, as expressed by Mayors Rahm and Lightfoot, is that an elected school board would be too unwieldy. Too many districts. Too many members. It would politicize the schools. 

I like to point out that Chicago’s school system is already very much politicized. It’s largely a political tool used by mayors to make them look good.

So that every hike in test scores or graduation rates—no matter how exaggerated—is hyped up as evidence that our mayor is an exalted leader we must worship.

Think of Eddie Murphy in Coming 2 America, where scantily clad attendants throw flowers before him as he walks their way.

As for my theory, it goes like this. Filling the board with mayoral appointees pretty much guarantees that there will be no opposition from the schools to really bad mayoral development deals, even if they’re financed with money diverted from the schools.

Like, for instance, a good chunk of the billions of TIF dollars that Rahm and Rauner were so eager to give to Amazon. Or the $1.3 billion that Mayor Rahm got the City Council to give to Lincoln Yards.

As such, mayors want rubber-stampers on the school board so that there’s no opposition from CPS when money gets diverted from the schools for various development schemes. 

And so, there’ve been nothing but yes men and women at the school board since 1995, when the state passed a “reform” law, giving Mayor Daley a free hand in naming them.

Years ago, one Daley school board aide explained it to me this way: if you want to be on the mayor’s team, you gotta do what the mayor demands.

And that explains why no school board member or CEO has ever opposed projects like the Olympics, Amazon, or Lincoln Yards—no matter how much money those projects diverted from the schools.

Let’s go back to the Amazon deal for a moment. Jeff Bezos turned down Mayor Rahm’s offer and decided to split his corporate headquarters between New York City and suburban Virginia.

But then Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted out opposition, and one thing led to another and pretty soon some unions in New York City were demanding that Amazon allow warehouse workers to unionize. Eventually, Amazon decided not to move its headquarters to New York.

One independent-minded school board member, like AOC, could do a lot of damage to some of the big publicly funded development deals around here. No wonder the powers that be want to keep schools under mayoral control.  v