Jitu Brown of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization wants to send "busloads of people to Springfield" to persuade the state to require an elected school board in Chicago.
Jitu Brown of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization wants to send "busloads of people to Springfield" to persuade the state to require an elected school board in Chicago. Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times Media

As a token of his appreciation for the voters of Chicago—or at least the growing segment that favors an elected school board—Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies on the City Council recently offered an early Christmas gift: a big, fat middle finger to the face.

For the second time in a year the mayor has
exploited the rules and successfully kept off the ballot an advisory referendum on whether we should have an elected school board.

At the moment Chicago’s school board is appointed by the mayor, a setup that works exceedingly well for the mayor in that it gives him virtually complete control over all school decisions, such as which schools open and which close.

The mayor’s chief allies in the latest City Council maneuver were the always-dependable aldermen Ed Burke, James Balcer, and Anthony Beale, whom the mayor’s aides have taken to affectionately nicknaming the 3Bs.

That’s not to be confused with B-3, which is what the mayor affectionately nicknamed schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the woman he brought in from Detroit to be the genial face on his cuts and closings.

The mayor has a habit of bestowing innocuous nicknames on the people who do his dirty work, as opposed to the nicknames he gives the people who oppose him.

Like, you lousy mother . . .

You get the idea.

Before I go further, allow me to say this about the current Board of Education: by and large it consists of seven enormously successful individuals who have done very well for themselves, in part because they long ago figured out which side of the bread is buttered, so to speak, in Chicago.

And that of course there’s nothing to be gained for anyone naive enough to stand with ordinary teachers, students, taxpayers, and various Reader columnists on the leading educational issues of the day.

And so they stood with Mayor Emanuel as he brought in Jean-Claude Brizard as CEO of the schools, only to stand with the mayor as he fired him less than two years later.

And as he ordered a longer day for all schools, even though he didn’t provide the resources to adequately fund it.

And as he closed 50 schools on the grounds that it would free up more money to finance new programs for the schools that remained open.

Only to stand with the mayor as he drastically cut the schools that remained open.

And they conveniently look the other way as the mayor uses the tax increment financing program to take as much as $250 million a year in property taxes away from the schools—money that he’s free to spend on things that have nothing to do with schools.

Such as that the DePaul basketball arena and Marriott hotel the mayor’s determined to build in the South Loop with at least $92 million in TIF money.

Anytime you want to protest that one, school board members, be my guest.

For all of these—and other—violations of their responsibilities to guard the fiduciary purse, school board members have been called out by many activists seeking an elected board. The argument is that if we elect even one—just one—independent-minded board member, it would be better than the robotlike factotums we have.

Over the summer of 2012 activists started rounding up the signatures needed to put the matter on the ballot in the form of an advisory referendum.

The mayor headed off that initiative by putting three relatively meaningless questions on the ballot, taking advantage of a rule that limits the citywide ballot to three referenda in an election.

This year the members of the city’s progressive caucus—the eight aldermen who dare to oppose the mayor when they think he’s wrong—were determined to keep the elected school board issue alive.

In July, 45th Ward alderman John Arena introduced a resolution calling for a referendum asking if “each member of” the school board shall “be elected by voters.”

The mayor immediately ordered it sent to the rules committee, whose chairman, Alderman Michelle Harris, refused to hold a hearing on it.

Without a hearing it could not be approved for the ballot. So last month, Arena moved that the council dislodge it from rules and have it placed on the ballot in time for next year’s primary elections, on March 18.

He was trounced by an overwhelming margin.

That’s where things stood until the closing moments of the November 26 council meeting, when Balcer introduced a resolution calling for a referendum on whether the state of Illinois should pass legislation banning “high-capacity magazines with more than 15 rounds a clip.”

And Burke introduced a resolution calling for a referendum on whether “Illinois should amend the firearms concealed carry act to ban the possession of concealed firearms in any establishment licensed to serve alcohol.”

And Beale called for a referendum on whether voters should address Mayor Rahm as “all-powerful bwana.”

Just kidding. Alderman Beale’s referendum was on whether the city should increase the taxi rate.

As important as these issues may be—and I think they are—approval one way or the other by the voters will not shift the tides.

Whereas an overwhelming majority in favor of an elected school board might force the state legislators and Governor Pat Quinn to change the law and give us one.

“We tried to preempt them with our resolution,” says Alderman Robert Fioretti, a member of the progressive caucus. “But they said, ‘Uh-oh,’ and preempted us.”

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Burke, chairman of the finance committee, will have a Scrooge-like change of heart—waking up one day to say, My God, I want to be a council independent.

At which point he’ll bottle the three referenda resolutions in his committee while bringing back Arena’s school board referendum.

Well, I suppose anything’s possible.

Ironically, many of the activists pushing hardest for the elected school board have pretty much given up on the City Council as they set their sights on the General Assembly.

“We’re trying to get the state to pass an elected school board,” says Jitu Brown, a leader of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, a south-side community group. “We want to send busloads of people to Springfield.”

That would set up an interesting showdown in which Mayor Emanuel would have to rely on the influence of house speaker Michael Madigan to keep the appointed board.

Well, anyway, congratulations, Mayor Emanuel. You win again—for the moment.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the correct date of next year’s primary elections.