It’s time for an elected board

By JAY TRAVIS

The facts recently shared by the Chicago Tribune in its series regarding the Chicago Public Schools’ issuance of $1 billion in auction rate securities coupled with risky interest rate swaps was not news to parents, community organizers and labor leaders who have vigilantly worked to expose the misuse of funds intended for the education of all Chicago Public School students. The decision by the current school board to approve the risky loans, which will cost taxpayers more than $100 million dollars, further illustrates the need for accountable leadership and conscientious oversight of the Chicago Public Schools. Now, more than ever, taxpayers in Chicago should have the right to elect the representatives that regularly vote on how the resources generated from their taxes should be allocated. There is clearly a need for legislation that permits an elected, representative school board.

Clearly, the current appointed school board has failed to exercise its responsibility to protect CPS resources, schools and students from deals that enrich banks and investors – while leaving thousands of students languishing in under-resourced schools. Furthermore, the willingness to gamble with CPS resources in alignment with its move towards the privatization of a significant portion of the public schools that serve students in predominately African American and Latino neighborhoods – a strategy that persists despite clear data that this approach to struggling schools has failed to improve the education outcomes for our students and in many cases – has made situations worse.

In 1995, former Mayor Richard M. Daley successfully advocated for the passage of the Amendatory Act, state legislation that that gave him the power to appoint the school board and superintendent for Chicago Public Schools. This legislation also removed the tax levy that specifically paid into the pension funds for Chicago Public School teachers, which I feel is important to note because teacher pension costs are often identified as the primary source of CPS’ deficit. Since that time, various members of the appointed school board have approved more than 120 school closings impacting students in primarily African American and Latino communities. Massive school closings and the proliferation of both charter and contract schools have continued over the past decade, despite data that indicates that the academic outcomes of affected students has not improved, and in many cases declined.

This same school board has awarded no-bid contracts to the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a contract school operator of which CPS board chair David Vitale served as board chairman and CPS Chief Operations Officer Tim Cawley served as CEO. And now after years of work done by groups such as the Grassroots Collaborative and the Chicago Teacher’s Union, the toxic swaps that have increased the amount of debt owed by Chicago Public Schools has finally received mainstream media attention.

Advocates for an elected school board are often challenged on the premise that the mayor has the wisdom to appoint school board members that have the expertise to make critical decisions impacting CPS students. This wisdom was clearly not apparent when it came time to make decisions regarding the toxic loans that have cost the school system $100 million. Many proponents of mayoral control have stated that they don’t want to bring “more politics” into public education. However, I question whether could it be more political than right now.

Many advocates of the appointed school board have also stated that Chicago residents are not competent enough to make such vital decisions regarding the resources and policies that govern Chicago Public Schools. I wholeheartedly disagree. There is not an intelligence deficit amongst Chicago residents – a point with which I believe most Chicagoans would agree. Therefore, we deserve access to the same democratic governing structures that exist in more than 800 school districts throughout the state; all of which have the right to elect their school board members. We must put an end to taxation without representation. The time for an elected, representative school board is now. We cannot afford more failed policies, and risky financial decisions.

Jay Travis is a former candidate for the 26th legislative district and former head of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.