Local Opinion

There’s Precedent: Elected School Board Would Make Matters Worse

By Mike Fourcher | Friday, November 2, 2012

The Chicago Board of Education chambers. Photo from CBOE

Next week voters in a patchwork quilt of precincts across Chicago will be asked at the bottom of their ballots to vote on a referendum that promotes an ill-conceived activist fantasy. The non-binding measure asks, “Shall each member of the Board of School District 299, known as the Chicago Board of Education, be elected by voters of the City of Chicago, State of Illinois?”

If Illinois’ system of elected judges, or if the electoral travesty that is the Metropolitical Water Reclamation District means anything to you, vote “no” on this measure with full confidence. (Check here for a list of precincts that will vote on the referendum.)

This editorial is a first. As publisher of Center Square Journal and Roscoe View Journal, I established a policy that our publications do not make endorsements, mostly because local politics is so personal to our readers, that it is hard to take an overt stand in neighborhoods that are so like an urban Mayberry.

But the upcoming referendum, pushed by the Chicago Teachers Union, preys on Chicago’s progressivist tendencies in the union’s increasingly personal battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Since passage of the 1995 School Reform Act, Chicago’s mayor appoints the seven-person Chicago School Board and the Chicago Public Schools’ CEO.

As many readers know, I had a career in national and Chicago politics before I started these publications, and my personal experience with Chicago’s political machinery drives me to oppose this broken referendum.

Tuesday’s referendum does not say exactly how a school board would be elected, but it is likely that the process would closely mirror those of either Cook County Circuit Court judges or the nine-members of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD). While there are certainly fine judges in Cook County, and excellent members of the Water Reclamation District, many are not, and the process for how they get backing and campaign funding is foul beyond belief.

The Chicago Reader has written extensively on Cook County’s bankrupt judge election process, where prospective and sitting judges must prostrate themselves before a closed-door meeting of Democratic Ward Committeemen. Then, with no real alternative for campaign support or fundraising, I’ve watched most judge candidates glue themselves to those same Ward Committeemen to get their signs up and flyers out to voters. Ward Committeemen, more interested in supporting candidates and campaigns that could one day help their own political fortunes (judges don’t hand out jobs, contracts or favors), then brusquely treat judge candidates as cannon fodder, usually helping the ones who kiss their feet the most.

With such a process, it’s hard to imagine the Cook County system producing any qualified judges, let alone the many that manage to keep our criminal justice system in tact. And yet, when I asked one judge candidate why he wanted the job, his response was, “There’s one hundred sixty-seven thousand reasons!” A reference to the judge salary at the time.

Candidates for MWRD, which manages a $1 billion annual budget, have it even worse. While most Cook County judges are elected in sub-circuits, reducing their campaign area to around three wards, MWRD candidates run county-wide, forcing them to bow and scrape before all 80 city and suburban Democratic Committeemen for support. Then, desperate to to raise the $80-100,000 or so needed to run a county-wide campaign, they turn to the one group that really cares about the MWRD, contractors. Although one MWRD Commissioner, Debra Shore, pioneered raising funds from environmentalists in 2006, there simply are not enough environmentalists to finance every MWRD campaign in Cook County.

Campaigns for MWRD have become so cynical, that candidate viability often turns on ballot position or how Irish your name sounds. One political consultant colleague of mine once ran an analysis that showed a significant percentage bump for top and bottom ballot positions.

How is it, that under these electoral conditions we actually think our government can be well managed?

This very real dystopian existence, would be extended to the Chicago School Board if it were to become an elected body. It is not realistic that when we have totally broken systems for electing judges and another huge government body, that an elected school board would fare much better.

I do understand the Chicago Teachers Union’s frustration with the School Board and Mayor Emanuel. But here their solution would only make matters worse. Please vote “no” to create an elected school board.

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  • Northside Mom

    Agreed! I fear that an elected school board will cause mass chaos (like we had in the ’70s/80′s) and those who have money will just buy the election of their preferred school board member putting our system into a tailspin of craziness. Not to mention, the district is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, you need people on the board who understand finance and business practices (as well as some people who understand the classroom).

    This issue is way more complicated than just elected v. appointed. Thank you for speaking out on it.

  • niuguy

    Well said.

  • Wilbur Gerald

    Great point! Elections really *are* messy. Frankly, I’m not so hot on the elected city council either. Sure, it’s nice to have people from different communities representing different points of view, occasional dissent, community accountability and all that stuff. But sometimes there’s corruption, and money and stuff! Wouldn’t it be better if all deliberative bodies were just appointed by one central authority, who knows best for everyone?

    • vouchey

      I’d say that I know better than most how messy elections can be. And I don’t regret that I gave close to 15 years of my professional life to the results of elections and campaigns. I actually love them.

      But the problem I have is not with elections, it is that elections do fit every need. Chicagoans elect a mayor and 50 aldermen. Shouldn’t we count on them to govern our city well? It is a fallacy that by simply creating a new set of elections that we wipe the slate clean and the voting public will pay attention to the process.

      Likewise, because we have problems with the way the Mayor manages the libraries (slashing hours) or the police department (misallocating patrols and closing districts) that we should create an elected library or police board, as many suburban districts have?

  • http://twitter.com/phillipcantor phillip cantor

    For a different view on this subject take a look at http://www.codechicago.org . While electing a school board is not a quick fix or a silver bullet it is a first step toward having a board that must listen to the wishes of the people of Chicago, and not just the mayor. Despite what many people think, Chicago has never had an elected school board. The current board is a rubber stamp which does not offer any diversity of opinion to the mayor or the CPS CEO. The proposals for the Elected Representative School Board process are not at all like the way judges or the Water Reclamation District are elected. Community groups are working with legislators to craft a process that gives different regions of the city representation since issues on the South Side are very different from issues on the North Side etc. It’s critical that we prevent well funded astroturf groups like “Stand For Children” or other monied interests like the Teachers Union from buying seats on the board. There are many issues to work out, but the appointed board of bankers, real estate developers and charter school executives is really destroying our district and we need to move toward something better. Democracy can be messy, but politics as usual is criminal when it harms our students and our city.

  • http://twitter.com/kevinmmcelroy Kevin McElroy

    Are you kidding me?? So we’re supposed to just sit idle and let the mayor appoint members because you’re all concerned that the basic premise of democracy is flawed? Is your next piece of advice going to tell us not to vote for the highest office because someone might have more money than the other to campaign. Unfortunately for all of us the issue is always going to be money. However, with all due respect to the mayor, I’d much rather have a swinging chance at electing a few seats rather than just assume that any one authority has our best intentions in mind.

    • vouchey

      You are not supposed to sit idle, you are supposed to get involved in the very important elections we already have: mayor and the 50 aldermen we elect every four years. I suggest you pick a candidate to support, register voters, pass flyers, knock doors, call voters. As someone that has worked on Chicago campaigns from 95th, to West Madison to Devon Ave., a very, very small portion of Chicagoans involve themselves in affecting the already important campaigns and elections already underway. Be a part of that, rather than imagining that a new set of elections would be any better.

  • Greg Foster-Rice

    Just for clarification, the ERSB referendum on which voters will vote is a non-binding referendum to gauge popular opinion about this idea. It would still require a major push to get the Illinois State Legislature to pass the required law, during which time the pros and cons of an ERSB would be a part of the popular discourse in ways it has rarely been, ever. While I recognize the problems of political corruption and the lack of campaign finance reform, both of which could play a role in the election of a representative school board, the problems that Mr. Fourcher addresses are not endemic to an ERSB, they are endemic to politics in Chicago (and Illinois, and America, for that matter!). Does that mean we should forgo any public elections? Or does it mean that at the same time that we consider — emphasis on consider — an ERSB we should also work hard at effective campaign finance reform? Note that Chicago is the only city in Illinois without an ERSB and that our appointed school board does not have a better track record than other school boards with elected representatives. Across the country, over 90% of school boards are elected with over 2/3 of school boards in major municipalities being elected. Now, all of that said, I’m not a strict advocate of elected-only school boards. There’s always the third option of a part-elected and part-appointed board, which may be a solution. At any rate, we are still years away from legislation and the referendum on Tuesday’s ballot is merely to gauge interest in the *idea* of an ERSB. I hope that voters will consider all the pros and cons and also recognize the specific nature of this measure, which is only to gauge interest and not to pass legislation.

  • Jack Scanlon

    The logic is so flawed in this editorial it is hard to know where to start.
    One point: we have one party rule in Chicago with a tradition of strong mayor, weak city council. As a result, we have a board of education who answers to one man the mayor. The school system is a mess. Are there any members of the school board in the neighborhoods from which most of the schools will be closed, consolidated, reformed, etc.? I doubt it. No wonder, as the superintendent stated yesterday, that there is no trust between community and board. Now that’s honest.
    A partly elected board would not do any worse than the Daley and Emanuel appointees of the last twenty + years. Let’s at least consider the idea of some members being elected.

    • vouchey

      We have one party rule because average citizens choose not to be part of the process. Your cynicism is common, and for that reason, I doubt a new set of elections would be any better. We have to start at the root of the problem, which is disenfranchisement and disconnection with our existing system. If Chicagoans would participate in the campaigns and elections already underway, it would be considerably more effective than creating a new government and election system.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jamaal.sibley Jamaal Sibley

        >[...]start at the root of the problem, which is disenfranchisement[..]

        You’re using a word here that literally means ‘lack of the privilege to vote’ to campaign against the ability to vote for the school board.


  • dariaclone

    I don’t think an ERSB would be perfect, but it seems a little odd to break from your editorial policy for a non-binding referendum.

    • vouchey

      Just because it’s non-binding doesn’t mean it’s a throw away election. It was designed to make a political point, and for that reason it is important.

  • Wendy Katten

    The people who canvassed for this in the 327 precincts were mostly parents and community members, not the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Given that I helped organize this effort with parent and community groups from around the city I am surprised at the knowledge you seem to possess about who pushed for this non-binding referendum. It was parents, many of whom are tired of going to board meetings where members have no clue about what’s happening inside our children’s schools, and yet vote on policies and budgets that impact our kids lives and schooling. We don’t think an elected representative school board would be any kind of panacea but we do think we deserve the option of electing maybe a person or two who get what good education is about and are not in there to rubber stamp the misguided policies of one person. 95% of all school boards in the US are elected and Chicago never had an elected school board in its history. At any rate, this is a non-binding referendum at this point and a yes vote would not change the current structure.

    • http://twitter.com/JMOChicago Jeanne Marie Olson

      I’m also rather surprised that Mike Fourcher did not realize that this was a CPS parent conceived and led effort, not the CTU. CPS parents are tired of having almost no representation in district level decision making, especially as it affects neighborhood schools (not SEES/Charters). After persistently and respectfully seeking input and information at the District level and continually being rebuffed, we’re fed up, frankly. CPS Admin has not engaged in authentic efforts to incorporate CPS neighborhood school parent input or diversified the representation of the Board (as it relates to relationships/connections with the Mayor.) Perhaps if they had, things wouldn’t have progressed this far. But here we are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000508887052 Julie Smith Moore

    I am shocked that your first political stance should be so ill-considered. Did you do much legwork before you wrote this, or was this just a knee-jerk reaction from your frustration with the judicial system and MWRD? As you said yourself, this is a non-binding referendum. This is simply to open up conversation. Why shouldn’t it be one more factor to consider for improving our schools?

    Also, consider this: This initiative was not about the CTU but was mainly brought about by parents — parents frustrated by the fact that there is no representation on the Board of Ed by people with skin in the game. Parents frustrated by the fact that the ones on the Board are completely out of touch with “those kids” in the schools they are making decisions about. Parents frustrated when the board approves a new calendar with some incomprehensible changes which leave us scrambling for childcare 10 days later, realizing we need to figure out childcare for 6 random additional half days, and trying to change nonrefundable spring break tickets. Parents frustrated because with calendars, and every other decision that affects our daily lives, we have no recourse, no input, and quite frankly, matter not one bit to any of these people. The Board answers to the mayor, not to the families of kids in the schools, or anyone else, for that matter. It is a sad state of affairs, and from the ongoing sorry state of CPS, clearly doesn’t work.

    And no, democracy is not a perfect system. Far from it. But it’s better than dictatorship. Right now people with the most at stake (parents of the kids, teachers, community members …) have NO say in who makes the decisions that affect their daily lives, and their children’s futures. We’re just asking for the opportunity to have that say. It is fundamental, and I’m surprised you don’t recognize that.

    • vouchey

      We do not have a dictatorship in Chicago, and you do have a say. We have a mayor and 50 aldermen we elect, who directly affect the makeup of the Chicago School Board. If Chicagoans cannot take responsibility to pay close attention to what their aldermen and mayor do come election time, why would they do so for a second-level barely understandable body like school board?

      If you don’t like the outcome of Chicago’s municipal elections, you can directly participate in the campaigns. As someone who has worked in dozens of Chicago campaigns, I am confident that if significantly more Chicagoans participated in campaigns, we’d have a vastly different government.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000508887052 Julie Smith Moore

        As a CPS parent and registered voter, my current “say” in the election of the school board is so far removed from having any real influence that it can’t even be considered. This is about an entire group of individuals hand-picked by the mayor who run the show. I want direct input to at least some of those people on the board. And I want the ability to vote them out when I don’t agree with their thinking. So that’s me (and I suspect, many other CPS parents). And again, why would it be so bad to vote “yes” to just open up the topic for conversation?

        • vouchey

          This year the Chicago Board of Elections reports 1.365 million registered voters. If you feel disenfranchised with mayoral elections among that many people, why should an elected school board be any different?

          As for opening the topic for discussion, election results rarely produce “discussion”, they produce political agendas among interest groups.

          And if it’s discussion you crave, why can’t voters do that with our existing system? Aldermen do respond to pressure. The mayor responds to pressure.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000508887052 Julie Smith Moore

          I never said I was disenfranchised with the mayoral elections. I said I had no real input on the school board. To me, voting for the mayor of my choice has about the same impact on the current school board as does my take on whether we should have sold off the parking meters — not even enough to be laughable. As it stands now, I am too far removed from the process, and I don’t want to be. Direct accountability to the people you serve seems a much more effective plan.

          And we _are_ trying to open discussion with our existing system. That’s why so many people turned out to get so many signatures across so many wards in order to get this on the ballot.

          CPS has some serious issues, and has for a long time. How is it such a bad thing to put this in the idea hopper for the future? I continue to scratch my head as to why you are so vehemently opposed to this.

        • vouchey

          Illinois has more independent bodies of government than any other state, including Texas and California, which are considerably larger in population. It has not made our state better governed.

          I am opposed to this because I have seen up close how uninterested the body politic is in our existing elections and campaigns. I believe we would be better served by turning the heat up on the elections and elected officials we already have, rather than creating a new home for corruption and disenfranchisement.

          BTW: Isn’t the mayor supposed to be directly accountable to us? If not, then why would an elected school board be any different? Because it’s a smaller body of government? If that’s the case, then how closely are you paying attention to MWRD?

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000508887052 Julie Smith Moore

          I am thrilled about the results. And in answer to your last questions: everything he said …


  • http://www.facebook.com/josh.kilroy Josh Kilroy

    This editorial articulated my own concerns about an elected school, based on experiences in politics that are similar to yours. Great job, Mike.

  • Gerald Hopkins

    ‘We have a one party rule because average citizens choose not to be a part of the process’ — Mike Fourcher.

    Mr. Fourcher aren’t you a part of that one party rule? Haven’t you worked to elect many of the elected officials currently in office? Your duplicity and lack of self-awareness is not only alarming, but it seriously erodes any credibility you try to cultivate as an impartial professional journalist. Aren’t you currently the treasurer of an elected official’s political PAC. Don’t you write stories that are slanted towards a political agenda to benefit your cronies and friends? Perhaps you’re the problem.

    • vouchey

      I don’t think there’s anything here that I didn’t cover in my piece above.

      As for being treasurer of an elected official’s campaign committee: I honestly don’t know who you’re referring to. I looked on the IL Board of Elections, but could not find any reference. Either way, I have not been involved in any political campaign in any capacity since February 2010.

      I believe that my history with political campaigns made me more informed.

  • Gerald Hopkins

    You’re complaining about the ‘county’s bankrupt judge selection process’, but that didn’t stop you from being a paid consultant on Gideon Baum’s judicial race. You can’t have it both ways.

  • Kenzo Shibata

    Mike, I’m surprised at your stance on this issue. I feel that the CSJ did a great job of bringing more transparency to Local School Council elections last spring. The LSC electoral process is often back-door and completely opaque, but the model you used made many elections in the North Center area more democratic. I would think that if the entire city were to have the authority to elect the school board, which is essentially a city-wide LSC, this would be a great opportunity for hyper locals to build networks and share information across the city.

    • vouchey

      Kenzo, I’m less interested in promoting the power of hyperlocals than I am in ensuring strong government. It’s great that people in the CSJ/RVJ area voted in droves for LSCs, but most of Chicago did not. As you know, close to half of Chicago’s LSC members are largely appointed because not enough people ran – or if they did, they ran unopposed.

      That does not sound like a functioning democracy to me. It sounds like voter laziness ripe for opportunistic hacks. The LSC model, while laudable when voters pay attention, is a terrible example of how we should choose to run our school board.

      • Gerald Hopkins

        You’re less interested in promoting the power of hyperlocals? Please, you didn’t seem to think so when you went to work for Journatic. You believe in strong government? No, you believe in writing slanted stories for your friends and political cronies. Perhaps you should check the IL State Board of Elections website a bit closer. Why is your home address the address for Greg Harris’ PAC. Quit the bull, Fourcher.

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  • s kcorn

    Wow, if you simply put pros or cons out there it would have been one thing but to just say vote ‘No’ on a non-binding measure seems pretty close-minded.

    You keep mentioning 50 alderman in your replies but regarding Chicago public schools, alderman have no power at all. It is truly a one man show, the Mayor’s. As proven by the resignation/firing of Jean Claude Brizard, CPS CEO, Mr. Brizard spent his brief time in Chicago doing nothing but being the mouthpiece and face of Mayor Emanuel’s education agenda.

    Also, as a parent I am sick and tired of being pigeon-holed into either the CPS camp or the CTU camp. Some parents may love their teachers but they would not expand the energy and time it takes to get signatures in over 320+ precincts for just the teachers union, we did it because the current system does NOT WORK. You may be right about judges and how they are elected but for most of us the judges do not affect our life directly. The people who decide the policies that impact the daily lives and future of our children on the other hand do and you can be sure that we would pay attention to who sits in those board seats.

    The travesty is that we have to have a referendum to even discuss an alternative to the current school board and the fact that the mayor, who as you say ‘is directly accountable to us’, won’t even take the time to listen to ideas. No one is saying ERSB is perfect but couldn’t their be some compromise of elected and appointed or at least a discussion of criteria to be a board member?

    I really don’t understand your patronizing tone about democracy and voter laziness, the ERSB referendum is democracy and it was hard-work getting it on 320+ precinct ballots. As to special interest groups, shouldn’t we finally have a group made of parents and community members invested in public education be part of the decision-making and not just politicians, corporations and billionaires that want our children to be guinea pigs for their agenda? .

    I still don’t see any evidence of why it would be worse to have an ERSB vs. a mayoral appointed school board.

    • vouchey

      SKcorn, the basic problem with your response, as well as many others I have heard from is that you are speaking as if YOUR activism is representative of the general body politic. It is not. It is wonderful that you worked so hard to get the referendum on the ballot. The exhilaration you feel for a good thing accomplished is what drew me to politics and kept me in the business for close to 15 years. It is what I miss the most, now that I am no longer politically active.

      My concern is that the temporary excitement about creating a new elected body will quickly peter out, leaving one more political system to be gamed by cronies and those with vested interests in an elected body’s actions.

      Local School Councils are an excellent example. In 1989 there were 17,000 candidates. In 2012 there were 6,500, less than a third of that number. Yes, there was tremendous activism in some parts of Chicago – the CSJ/RVJ coverage area for example – but the majority of Chicago’s schools struggled to get enough candidates. The result is that in most schools, LSCs are a tool of the principal and CPS.

      (History here: http://www.cps.edu/Pages/LSCHistoricalbackground.aspx)

      I do not see how a new set of elected officials creates a lasting renaissance of city-wide activism. In fact, Cook County judges and WRMD commissioners were converted into elected offices as part of a progressive movement. What have we wrought there?

      I believe in the power of pressure on elected officials from an active, interested public. In fact, I am a committed Alinskyite. Why can’t we do that with our existing elected officials rather than create new ones?

      One last thing: This is an editorial, and is very plainly noted as such. You may call it closed-minded, but once you have drawn a personal conclusion, it is hard to be considered open-minded. I accept responsibility for that.

      • s kcorn

        I am not trying to pat ourselves on the back for the referendum but trying to point out that this effort was due to the frustration of being a CPS parent where all the people who make decisions about your children really have ‘no skin’ in the game. Many of us have tried other methods but to no avail. It may be true that there is not the same level of interests all over the city but do we sit back and do nothing unless we have 100% participation?

        “I believe in the power of pressure on elected officials from an active, interested public. In fact, I am a committed Alinskyite. Why can’t we do that with our existing elected officials rather than create new ones?”
        I agree with your statement and don’t you think a referendum to discuss an ERSB is a way of putting pressure on elected officials? Currently, even if we liked the school board members we couldn’t keep them since they are appointed by the mayor and will probably be replaced by the next one.

        The current school board is a “political system to be gamed by cronies and those with vested interests”. I’m pretty sure Rahm isn’t appointing his enemies on to it. The idea that the current system is any way altruistic and without political agenda would be naive.

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