Education advocates split over elected, appointed school board

Much of the debate centered between grassroots organizer Jitu Brown, left, and Chicago Board of Education member Jesse Ruiz, middle. Roger Eddy, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, right, also took part.

By Phoebe Tollefson

Roughly two weeks before citywide elections, education advocates debated the merits of a mayor-appointed and voter-elected school board, while noting issues such as conflicting interests and political pressures.

“I do have a concern about inserting more politics into school board operations,” said Jesse Ruiz,, vice president of the Chicago Board of Education, during a panel discussion Monday at the City Club of Chicago. “Well, you may laugh, but again, I don’t have to raise a dime from anybody.

“There are very difficult decisions to be made, and sometimes not very popular decisions. I’d hate to have to worry about my next election when taking a vote.”

Ruiz said there would be a conflict of interest if board members were elected rather than appointed, because union-backed members would be pressured to take teacher-friendly votes on contracts. Ruiz also said local school councils have more authority than people realize.

“They pick the principal,” Ruiz said. “We have now moved to student-based budgeting that gives more autonomy to the schools. At times, we’ll have school board meetings and you hear, ‘well we don’t have this, we don’t have that.’ And the truth of the matter is, that local school council and that principal made those choices on how to allocate those funds.”

Panelist Jitu Brown, national director of the grassroots education coalition Journey for Justice Alliance, disagreed, kicking responsibility back to the appointed board members.

“How could it be more political than it is right now?” Brown asked. “You have the chief operations officer for Chicago Public Schools who is the former CEO of the Academy for Urban School Leadership. You have the board president of the Chicago Board of Education who is the former board president of Academy for Urban School Leadership. They get schools with no-bid contracts.”

Brown said allowing the school board to be appointed and closely connected with the mayor has lead to widespread closings of neighborhood schools and increased resources for charter schools.

“We’ve been fighting like wet cats for Dyett High School in Bronzeville, saying, ‘we do not want to lose our last open-enrollment, neighborhood high school, and the mayor is giving a political endorsement at an organization that is submitting an application for Dyett,” he said. This is a civil rights issue because it is removal of our voting rights. People can raise our taxes but we cannot hold them directly accountable for the policies they set.”

Brown added he was working with newly elected state Rep. Will Guzzardi of the 39th District to introduce a bill that would make the Chicago Board of Education voter-elected.

“We believe that there should be compensation for the school board because the only people that can afford to serve on the school board for free are people that are wealthy,” Brown said.

The appointed board model has been in the public eye often ahead of the Feb. 24 city elections. All four of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s opponents, in addition to the Chicago Teachers Union and several aldermanic candidates, favor an elected board. Voters in 37 of the city’s 50 wards will voice their opinions on the matter in a non-binding referendum Feb. 24, but it would take a change in state law to revert to the democratically elected model.

Some advocates for reform are pushing for a mix of mayoral appointments and elected seats on the seven-person board.

“An elected school board is not a panacea for reform,” Alderman Proco Moreno wrote in response to a Sun-Times questionnaire. “If we do move in this direction, perhaps a hybrid model [some members elected some appointed] would be appropriate.”

In the same candidate survey, Mark Thomas, who is running against incumbent Tom Tunney in the 44th Ward, identified possible drawbacks to electing the board.

“I am concerned that this would become a low information election where political partisanship and personal wealth could have too much influence on the outcome of the race.” Like Moreno, Thomas supports a hybrid model.

Of the 25 largest cities in the U.S., only Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston appoint their boards. Of those, only Chicago and Boston concentrate their appointment powers in the hands of the mayor. In New York, both the mayor and borough presidents make appointments, and in Philadelphia the mayor shares that role with the governor.

Chicago had a voter-elected school board until 1995, when the state legislature passed a law instituting a five-member, mayoral-appointed board. The board was increased to seven seats a few years later. Supporters of the change said it was necessary to centralize decision-making and save underperforming Chicago Public Schools.

The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board recently endorsed the appointment model for the school board, arguing for the benefits of concentrating responsibility on the mayor alone. The Tribune also endorsed Emanuel for a second term as mayor.

Photo at top: Much of the debate centered between grassroots organizer Jitu Brown, left, and Chicago Board of Education member Jesse Ruiz, middle. Roger Eddy, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, right, also took participated in Monday’s debate. Phoebe Tollefson/MEDILL.