As funny as it sounds, the future of an elected school board in Chicago may come down to who Illinois governor Bruce Rauner likes the least: Mayor Rahm or Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis.
In Rahm’s first term it would’ve been preposterous to think the choice was even close. Rahm and Rauner were practically in the throes of a bromance. They’d shared vacations, bottles of expensive wine, business deals, and a contempt for teachers’ unions.
But now they’re nearing year two of their feud, which as far as I can tell is largely over Rahm’s refusal to join Rauner’s effort to bankrupt the Chicago Public Schools. For once, the mayor seems to be the grown-up in the room.
The elected school board movement, on the other hand, has been led by Lewis and CTU for the last five or six years. They’re hoping an elected board will be an improvement over the appointed one that the mayor’s filled with rubber-stampers who’ve given him a free hand to drive the schools toward the bankruptcy that Rauner seems eager to finish off.
The mayor says he opposes an elected school board because he doesn’t want to “politicize” the schools. I think we can all agree that what he really means is he doesn’t want any other politicians to have a say in how the schools are run.
I suspect Emanuel has up to 250 million real reasons for not dealing with an elected board. That’s roughly the dollar amount in property taxes that gets diverted each year from CPS to the mayor’s favorite slush fund: the tax increment financing program.
As a not-so-insignificant example, consider a detail from a story written by Fran Spielman in the June 3 edition of the Sun-Times. Spielman’s piece is about the mayor’s proposal to turn over the old Michael Reese Hospital site, which the city owns, to developers.
“The site needs ‘a ton’ of infrastructure work, officials said—including rebuilding Cottage Grove Avenue, putting in a new park, pedestrian connections to the lakefront and a Metra station at 31st Street,” Spielman writes.
She goes on to mention that the project’s expected to cost “tens of millions,” which “is to be paid for out of tax-increment financing.”
That’s one line in a longer story. But it would be more than an afterthought if we had at least one or two independent-minded board members demanding a precise account of exactly how many TIF dollars the mayor plans to spend on the project—and reminding the mayor that TIF money has already been diverted from CPS.
In other words, the elected board members could be the fiduciary watchdogs the system desperately needs. On the other hand, they could be rubber-stampers, like most of the members of the City Council. When you bring democracy to Chicago, you never can be sure exactly what you’re going to get.
The current appointed board can be expected to remain silent about the Reese project, on top of all the other TIF-funded development deals the mayor’s got up his sleeves. So it was no surprise in a 2015 referendum that an overwhelming majority of Chicagoans in 37 wards concluded that we might as well join the 21st century and have an elected board like all the other municipalities in the state.
That brings us to the statehouse. An elected school board requires a new state law. So far Emanuel’s stymied the movement thanks to another of his old pals, state senate president John Cullerton.
Last year, the house passed an elected school board bill only to see it die in the senate because Cullerton, doing Rahm’s bidding, didn’t bring it to a vote. This year, the house passed the bill by the overwhelming margin of 105 to nine (even Republicans voted for it). In the house bill proposed by state rep Rob Martwick, the Chicago Board of Education would be composed of 20 members elected in newly drawn districts. That body would be led by a president who would run citywide for a four-year term. The first election would be in 2019.
Last week, Emanuel hit the phones, pleading with state senators not to bring the bill for a vote. But apparently he couldn’t find any Chicago-based senators to do his dirty work—at least not this time around. And so Cullerton had no choice but to bring the measure for a vote. Not that he didn’t try some funny stuff. For one thing, he did so after normal office hours on the night of May 31, when it was too late to attract much media attention. Thus he saved the mayor the humiliation of having to watch Lewis claim a victory on the ten o’clock news. Then Cullerton amended the bill to have 15 school board members (not 21) and to move the first election to 2023. Amending the bill sends it back to the house, where it seems Cullerton presumed Martwick and his allies would insist on their original language, delaying passage for another year while the house and senate haggle over the language.
Slick move, President Cullerton.
Unfortunately for Rahm, Martwick’s not going to object to the bill even though he thinks his original version is better. “The senate bill is not perfect, but it’s pretty good,” Martwick tells me. “I’m just thrilled an elected school board is happening.”
Martwick’s going to ask that house speaker Michael Madigan “concur” on the senate bill. Basically, that means the house would vote on the senate bill as it stands when members return to Springfield at the end of the month.
So it looks like, despite Rahm’s best efforts, the school board bill will reach Rauner’s desk sometime this summer.
And that’s when the governor has to make his big decision. If he signs the bill, he really sticks it to Rahm, his new adversary. If he vetoes it, he sticks it to Lewis, his old adversary. Oh, which adversary shall a governor choose?
Most statehouse observers I’ve talked to predict Rauner will sign the bill—if for no other reason than that its supporters have enough votes to override his veto.
But I don’t know. Rauner signing a Karen Lewis bill? Man, I’ve got to see it to believe it. v