On the surface, Stephen Ballis seems like the kind of school board member that activists love. Over the last two decades he has served on a local school council, several PTA boards, and other volunteer public-school associations. In addition he is the primary author of the board’s Save plan, which proposes many budget and work-rule changes long advocated by reformers.

But last month the school-board nominating commission voted against reslating Ballis and two other incumbents, Saundra Bishop and Juan Cruz. Ballis and the others say they are the innocent victims of a political power play engineered by activists trying to embarrass Mayor Daley. “Political games were being played,” he says. “The same people who voted against me were the ones who earlier told me I was doing a good job.”

But most nominating commissioners contend that their opposition to Ballis and the rest of the board has nothing to do with City Hall politics or Mayor Daley. Rather, they say, they feel the board has failed to meet the needs of the local schools. And their decision indicates that the gulf between the school board and many of the parents and activists it is supposed to represent is widening.

“You can’t just reduce this to politics, that’s misleading,” says Kevin Lamm, a member of the nominating commission. “There are legitimate differences between commissioners and board members on school board behavior and policy. The board has got to realize that they are losing touch.”

Also at issue is a long-standing feud between Mayor Daley and the nominating commission, which consists of 5 mayoral appointees and 23 LSC members from across the city, who are elected to the commission by LSC representatives. The commission was created by the same 1988 school reform law that instituted the LSCs; its purpose is to provide the mayor with candidates for board vacancies. Since the terms of board members are staggered, the commission is almost always in session either soliciting and reading applications from candidates, interviewing candidates, or debating candidates’ merits.

“We’re a completely democratic board and we’re directly accountable to the LSCs, who elect us,” says Lafayette Ford, chairman of the commission. “All of our meetings and deliberations are open to the public–in contrast to the school board, which is conducting its search for a new superintendent in the dark.”

For their efforts, however, the commissioners have received little thanks from Mayor Daley, who complains that the group limits his ability to select the best candidates. “At this point I think the commission really should be abolished,” says Leonard Dominguez, deputy mayor for education and one of Daley’s appointees to the commission. “There has got to be a better way. I have had a lot of people tell me that they wouldn’t subject themselves to this process. No other mayor has had such restrictions on naming board members.”

Ironically, Stephen Ballis used to be a commission member. He sent his children to public schools, and one of his daughters is now an English teacher in the system. “I was involved in school issues long before the school reform law,” he says. “I got involved in the PTA at my neighborhood school before my children went there and I stayed involved after my kids graduated. I believe improving education is the best way to make positive change.”

In 1989, Ballis was elected as a community representative to the LSC at Lincoln Park High School. Daley named him to a three-year term on the school board in 1990. Earlier this year, he helped write the Save plan. “Save is intended to provide some sort of vision for student achievement and financial stability,” he says. “We wanted to provide a system that was supportive of reform and local school-based management.”

Among other things, the plan would give principals more control over faculty selection by eliminating teacher seniority rights. In return for such controversial work-rule changes, opposed by the union but endorsed by suburban Republican legislators, the plan calls on the state to increase its aid for the system.

“The plan was the result of a series of hearings involving teachers, parents, principals, and staff,” says Ballis. “We decided to write what needed to be done, not what is possible. This system cannot survive based on conventional wisdom. Unless we change some paradigms, we’re doomed to a system that will fail its students.”

Some LSC members applaud the plan’s work-rule changes but object to a proposal that would allow the board to temporarily use state antipoverty money to help balance the budget. Currently, these funds are apportioned to each school according to its number of low-income students. Each school council then determines how the money is spent.

Ballis says the antipoverty money is needed to help reduce a $450 million budget deficit. But many LSC members say the proposal is unfair. “They want to balance the budget on the backs of poor kids,” says Carlos Malave, a member of the commission. “It would be going back to the old days where the central office controlled things.”

The Save plan was drafted in the midst of a heated battle for control of the board between Florence Cox and Sharon Grant. African American activists had rallied around Cox, contending that Grant was Daley’s puppet. (Grant, a black businesswoman from the west side, vehemently denies those charges; last month she unseated Cox as board president with the support of black, white, and Hispanic members.) The mayor’s allies countered that activists wanted to make Cox into a martyr in order to help inspire a large anti-Daley turnout in black wards come the 1995 mayoral election.

Ballis got caught in the fray. Because he’s a middle-aged white developer from Lincoln Park who supported Grant, he came to represent white resistance to black political aspirations. Two nominating commissioners, Mark Allen and Ron Mitchell, went so far as to publicly announce that they would vote against any board member who supported Grant over Cox.

“To a certain degree people identified me as another Bill Singer, and that’s not accurate,” says Ballis, referring to the well-known–and well-connected–lawyer-lobbyist who once sat on the board. “I didn’t come into this process as political heavyweight. I am a community activist and a parent and a political independent. I have met Mayor Daley at a few meetings, but I don’t really know him. There is no connection between me and the mayor.”

Dominguez unsuccessfully attempted to have the commission reslate Ballis. “I think the incumbents should have been reslated so the mayor could get the chance to examine their performances and determine whether they have served the city well,” says Dominguez. “The commission not only tried to limit the mayor’s choice but to intimidate board members. I feel that’s inappropriate behavior. Ballis did not deserve such treatment. [The Save plan] showed a lot of creativity and intelligence–is this not needed on the board of education?”

Other commissioners contend that the commission should not be held accountable for Mitchell and Allen’s heavy-handed tactics. Indeed, most commissioners say that the commission is so dissatisfied with the current board, it probably won’t reslate Cox when her term expires next year.

“You’re talking about the actions of 2 members of a 28-person body,” says Ford. “There were many reasons not to support the incumbents. They were part of the divisiveness on the board. There was a lot of concern about board micromanagement. The board was getting involved in issues that went beyond policy and dealt with the day-to-day running of the system. They were doing things that should be left to the superintendent.”

In addition many commissioners objected to the Save plan. “I resent that people say our objection is totally political,” says James Deanes, a member of the commission. “That’s like the Sun-Times editorial that said the people who came out for Cox at board hearings were a bunch of wild-eyed fanatics. I saw ministers, aldermen, and concerned parents there. I think it’s criminal to distort people’s character or motives.”

Other commissioners say that board members have lost touch with the LSCs. “Board members are overwhelmed by the appearance of importance,” says Lamm. “They sit there in that nice boardroom behind those nice desks while the rest of us ordinary people remain on the other side of the barrier. They are fed inside knowledge and are co-opted by staff and soon they are less accessible. They go into executive session way too often, keeping the public guessing as to what they are discussing or why decisions are being made. They become a part of the problem instead of changing it.”

Despite the commission’s decision, Ballis, Cruz, or Bishop will not have to step down immediately. Dominguez says the mayor needs time to interview and check the backgrounds of the nine candidates the commission has nominated–a process that can take months. “We once had a board member remain on the board a year and a half after his term had expired,” says Deanes. “The mayor clearly has no use for the commission.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.