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City Colleges, Chicago Public Schools teachers push for elected boards

By Branden Hampton

Faculty at City Colleges of Chicago are banding together with their counterparts in Chicago Public Schools to push for legislation that would bring elected boards to both districts.

Both groups want to curb Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s power by ending his ability to hand-pick board members, as well as the chief executive officer of CPS and the chancellor of City Colleges.

“Right now our mayor has too much power over the decisions about education, frankly. There aren’t any checks,” said Kim Knuston, the faculty council president at Wilbur Wright City College on the North Side.

The Chicago Teachers Union and grassroots activists have lobbied for several years to have an elected board for CPS, with no results with lawmakers in Springfield, who would have to approve the move. CPS and City Colleges are the only districts in the state to have appointed boards.

Now the Cook County Teachers Union, which represents City Colleges faculty, has taken up a similar fight, sparked by accusations that the administration neglected faculty and student input into key decisions.

In a complaint sent to the Higher Learning Commission (which grants accreditation to post-secondary institutions in the region), the faculty council of City Colleges criticized the decision to consolidate programs without faculty, student and community input into the impact of the move.

The complaint also says City Colleges is violating practices deemed essential by the Commission, including eliminating the position of chief academic officer or provost, a job that the Commission considers a requirement. Jennifer Alexander, faculty council president at Richard J. Daley College in West Lawn, said that the previous provost left in spring 2015 and that district administrators then eliminated the position. Alexander also noted that the primary decision-makers at City Colleges’ district office are not academics, but people with a business background.

Additionally, the complaint states, “district office does not present itself clearly and completely to students. The information on program consolidation and specialized accreditation has been withheld from or misrepresented to students, who grow more confused with each passing day of uncertainty and miscommunication.”

Knuston claims that the City Colleges plan to consolidate programs has been in the works, under the radar, for several years. “It all started with meetings with various people, like the Civic Consulting Alliance, which is part of the Commercial Club [a business-oriented civic group]. The first public acknowledgement of this happening was at the Economic Club in 2011.”

Plus, Emanuel replaced four board members in 2015, Knuston pointed out. “Not only is that too much power but it’s nightmarish,” she said. “The turnover has been frightening.”

“Democracy does not exist”

Brandon Johnson, an organizer and deputy political director for the Chicago Teachers Union, expressed similar concerns. “Right now in Chicago, the democracy within our public school system does not exist,” he said. “You have a hand-picked school board that is beholden to the mayor, who is ultimately beholden to corporate interests.”

The influx of privately-run charters under Emanuel, which started under his predecessor Mayor Richard M. Daley, is also a sore point. “Since we’ve had privatization here in Chicago, we’ve lost half of our black teaching force and then ultimately the removal of [resources] from our neighborhood schools,” added Johnson.

An elected board, Knuston said, “would answer to the public or the community instead of just the mayor. Right now the faculty, the students and the communities are not involved in all of these decisions, and haven’t been.”

The Cook County Teachers Union Local 1600 President, Tony Johnston, said local input is essential. “We want our communities to have a voice in how their community college is run,” Johnston declared.

Johnston and State Rep. Robert Martwick Jr., D-Chicago, recently introduced legislation to the Illinois House that would implement an elected board for City Colleges. Johnston said the legislation was introduced after he saw Martwick introduce a bill to have an elected board for CPS. Johnston asked Martwick about introducing similar legislation.

Martwick believes that the bill for CPS has a very good chance to pass in the House. “We need 60 votes to pass a bill out of the house and I currently have 56 co-sponsors,” said Martwick.

The City Colleges bill, which was filed more recently, has a high likelihood of passing during the next legislative session, according to Martwick.

Upcoming votes

The CPS bill is currently in the elementary and secondary education committee and Martwick said he will try to move it through a committee hearing in February and a floor vote in the coming months.

A spokesperson for City Colleges declined to comment. Chicago Public Schools did not return calls seeking comment.

Although the City Colleges legislation is still in the early stages, Johnston said that the Cook County Teachers Union is trying to get as many cosponsors as possible, such as State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, and State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago.

Johnston noted that before the City Colleges legislation was introduced in mid-November, Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke out against an elected school board for Chicago. But the response from the public has been very positive, Johnston added.

Despite the campaign, Johnston noted that the Cook County Teachers Union is just trying to change the system and said he tried to communicate at a December 2015 board meeting that he wasn’t attacking the board members as individuals.

“If this gets passed, I would encourage them to run because from what I’ve seen it’s a pretty good board,” he said. “We’re looking at this system-wide and as far as democracy is concerned.”

Below is the document sent to the Higher Learning Commission by the Faculty Council of the City Colleges of Chicago.

Photo at top: City Colleges of Chicago flags fly at its headquarters in downtown Chicago. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)