If local parents and community groups have their say, the Chicago Board of Education would be an elected body. (Meredith Francis/MEDILL)

Hand-picked CPS board no longer works for parents who want their own vote

By Meredith Francis and Emily Olsen

While many are already casting their ballots for the presidential election, some Chicago parent and community groups are demanding the opportunity to cast a vote for their local school board.

“Parents, people across the city have had enough. We want an elected school board and we want it now,” said Erica Clark, a member of Parents 4 Teachers, outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters just before the monthly board meeting.

CPS is the only district in the state with an appointed school board, where the mayor chooses members of the city’s Board of Education rather than holding elections.

Parents and community groups like the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and Raise Your Hand argue the appointed board isn’t held accountable to the public for its decisions, like the upcoming plan to spend $840 million in bonds on things like new schools when the district has underused ones already.

“Without a real democratic process, how can parents, students and community residents trust the mayor and appointed board with properly spending money?” asked Andrea Palafox, a CPS parent and member of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “The answer is we cannot.”

The issue may come to head during the Illinois General Assembly’s veto session in just a few weeks, Clark says. In March, a bill to force an elected school board passed the House overwhelmingly, with only four votes against.

Despite two and a half hours of public criticism Wednesday, Board President Frank Clark insisted the district’s financial and academic conditions are improving. And despite a threatened strike earlier this month: “At the end of the day, we should recognize and celebrate CPS is a system that is good and getting better.”

Parents from the Uno Charter School Network, which also recently avoided a strike, want more say-so, too. They’re calling for the implementation of local school councils for charters, as well as a democratically elected school board.

“How do I know that the UCSN board will keep the CEO accountable when its board is made up of members handpicked by the CEO?” said Guillermina Valdez, a parent at Octavio Paz School in Little Village. “They are out of touch. Their actions undermine the community engagement that they claim to practice.”

Valdez spoke before the CPS board even though the privately run, publicly funded charter school network operates independently of CPS. Because public funds are partially used to pay for charters, they are accountable to CPS academic standards.

Valdez and her fellow parents said the network was not transparent after nearly 30 layoffs of high school and college counselors as well as technology staff. But network officials said in addition to regular informational meetings, parents were informed through letters the layoffs were required as a result of CPS budget cuts last summer.

Valdez still wants more direct involvement.

“I don’t claim to be an expert on education,” Valdez said. “But I do expect to be consulted and included in the decisions made.”

Photo at top: If local parents and community groups have their say, the Chicago Board of Education would be an elected body. (Meredith Francis/MEDILL)