Before Wednesday, I’d never thought it would make much sense for Chicago to switch to an elected school board, given the problems we already face electing good people to the offices we now fill.
Then I changed my mind while watching Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s six appointees to the Board of Education vote unanimously to close 50 schools next year despite thoughtful and impassioned pleas from community members begging them to reconsider.
Securing a unanimous vote was intended to project strength, I suppose, as in: “they must be doing the right thing if all of them agreed.”
But it struck me as quite the opposite, to think that here in a city as vast and diverse as this there was nobody on its school board who felt the need to reflect the dissenting point of view of those on the receiving end of the closings.
In the end, the board was so tone deaf to its audience that on the crucial vote that closed most of the schools, they used the parliamentary maneuver of adopting the previous favorable roll call — instead of taking the extra 30 seconds to each say “yes” once more. The average person in attendance didn’t even know the closings had been approved until it was over.
Some of the school board members are known personally to me as substantial, thoughtful and well-intentioned individuals, and I’m happy to assume the same of the rest. I have no doubt they all believe they did what is right, although I am among those who would have favored far fewer closings.
But as a whole, this appointed school board is not truly representative of the community.
And more important, they’re not accountable to anyone except the guy who appointed them — the mayor, whose desired end result on the issue of school closings drove the process.
The mayor would say the accountability lies with him. And I have to admit this has been a gutsy stance on his part from the start because there are now more voters than ever hoping to take him up on that.
“Hey, hey. Ho-ho. Rahm Emanuel has got to go,” was the chant from sidewalk protesters who greeted early arrivals at Board of Education headquarters.
With school closings most affecting the African-American community, where population losses have been greatest, a contingent of black aldermen put in appearances Wednesday, scrambling to get on the correct side of an issue that could be politically dangerous for them as well.
For the most part, though, they only argued to preserve schools in their own wards, didn’t stick up for each other and were careful not to say anything to rankle the mayor.
I was more impressed by the protest group that declared, “Every school is my school,” which seemed to get lost in the process of schools being pitted against each other in what one woman called “CPS’ version of ‘The Hunger Games.’”
Still, the black alderman raised some points that needed to be made about the valid safety concerns of parents due to gang boundaries, about how some parents will now pull their kids out of CPS rather than send them to their assigned school; and how more families will end up abandoning the city — all of it adding up to more “underutilization.”
Only Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), who was ticketed for political extinction by ward redistricting and therefore has nothing to lose, offered a give-em-hell speech in which he argued no schools should be closed.
Ald. Howard Brookins Jr., who chairs the City Council’s Black Caucus, was noticeable by his absence and called me later — at the suggestion of the mayor’s press office, he explained — to tell me “the system at least worked.”
It worked better for Brookins than others because one of the schools in his ward slated for closing — Mahalia Jackson Elementary — was among four schools granted a last-minute reprieve by schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
In between the dramatic scenes of angry audience members refusing to leave the podium, there were so many speakers who raised such thoughtful issues about why it made no sense for their school to be closed that it would have given anyone pause. But there was to be no pause.
“The time is always right to do what is right,” Byrd-Bennett would later say of the 50 schools being closed, using a quotation from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to defend a policy decision that I can’t imagine King would have favored.
King would have been more likely to lead a campaign for an elected school board.