Time to trade in mayoral-style "accountability" for an elected school board

You ready for an elected school board yet, Chicago? Has the news of the week pushed you over the edge?

We have Emanuel, who repeatedly reschedules his meeting with city council to tell them his heroic plan to cover the costs of the rest of the school year, and then it emerges that the total amount needed to finish the year is approximately 4 times higher than was previously stated, reaching up into the $590M territory.

We hear reports that Emanuel and his hand-picked CPS CEO can't see eye to eye anymore, and then there's Rauner, who pretends to disagree with them both about how to run CPS.

And our former CEO, also hand-picked by the mayor, was just bundled off to a 4.5 year prison sentence.

Still these people oppose an elected school board. Still there are state legislators who oppose it, notably Sen. John Cullerton, who obstructed the elected representative school board bill last year until it died. We don't need an elected board, they tell us. They speak instead of "accountability."

You need a strong-armed PR machine if you oppose an elected representative school board. Because obviously it simply won't do to go around saying, I am against an elected school board. Few districts in the US have mayoral-appointed boards. They are a time-honored and long-standing critical component of our local democracies. No, you can't say what it is you mean. You have to say something like, For civil rights, and for the children,  and for freedom, and for choice, and because I care about you, I am for an accountable school board.

That accountability link isn't super strong, but it has to do with the fact that we are supposedly able to hold the mayor accountable for all the terrible things that happen in our schools, because he appoints the board of ed and the CEO. And when we think he did a bad job, we just don't elect him again. Yay, democracy!

Of course, what sounds good and right on paper doesn't always work out that way. Mere days after the election that reseated Rahm, Barbara Byrd-Bennett found herself in serious hot water when the FBI appeared at her door. The timing of this sequence of events did impede that accountability business somewhat.

BBB was in trouble for her role in a fraudulent contract with the infamous SUPES. I sat in her sentencing for this.

A sentencing is fascinating. I had never been to one before. Lawyers from both sides gave their arguments for why the judge should heed their prison-sentence recommendation. BBB herself had a chance to speak. And the judge spoke of the crime, BBB's character, and the message the sentence must send in a corrupt city like ours.

The lawyers and judge spoke at length of her emails which yielded so much damning evidence. You know--tuition to pay and casinos to visit--smiley face.

Thinking about the FBI reading all of BBB's emails gave me a jolt. I myself corresponded with her off and on via email for two years--from the time of the unconscionable school closings in 2013 until just before she left the job in 2015.

I was typically angry, pushing the CEO to address every train wreck at that time--and there were so many. In the beginning we spoke only of the mass closings of 50 schools, the mother of all train wrecks. On the day of the closings, I listened to that circus of a board of ed meeting from home. CPS repeatedly cut the audio as speaker after speaker exceeded their two minutes and were dragged from the podium. Board president David Vitale told the people "in the peanut gallery" to be quiet. Overcome with indignation at the way these sorry proceedings were executed--never once was the list of schools to be closed named or listed in any way by the board--I banged out a scathing email to the woman overseeing it all:

"The idea that this school action of shuttering 50 schools will be your career legacy must give you pause today. This will follow you, you know. I don't think it will be so easy for you to go to another city and manage a mass school closing. Too many people know about you now....

"I am so sorry for my city that this is the legacy you have chosen for yourself. Because as much as it will impinge on your own life and self-regard, it will hurt the people of Chicago far, far more."

This did not sit well with the CEO. She wrote me back immediately--right in the middle of the meeting.

"It is absolutely your right to express your opinion and I welcome your thoughts. We do live on a democracy that values such relative to public policy.

"However, when it comes to my legacy, my integrity and my work history on behalf of children that will be determined by higher powers. This is my belief and my faith in my Maker."

Props to her for welcoming my thoughts. But I guess those higher powers did determine her legacy after all. Not even I could have guessed that this terrible legacy of school closings could be eclipsed almost entirely by a prison sentence.

But I digress. Or, reader, you think I digress. Weren't we talking about an elected school board? What does that have to do with our CPS CEO going to prison?

Only this.

Had Chicago an elected representative school board, this SUPES debacle never would have happened. The only people who seemed neither to know about SUPES, nor care about BBB's long close ties with it, were Emanuel's appointed overseers, the board of ed. In fact Andrea Zopp went so far as to say that while they were preparing to accept the no-bid, $20M SUPES contract, they thought BBB's connection to it was an asset--a claim she still stands by. Don't forget that Sarah Karp wrote about SUPES exhaustively in 2013. Don't forget that the parent activist community and many education journalists and bloggers--across the nation--already had SUPES on their radar and raised a big noise about it--just not loud enough to penetrate the thick fog that separated the board from everyone else, and reality. Don't forget that the board was made up of folks many of whose businesses profited from their decisions as board members. These were not judicious, objective people. They were people selected by the mayor to execute his bidding, and maybe even benefit a little along the way.

It's time to end the stranglehold that mayoral-style "accountability" has on CPS.

It's time for a real, elected school board that invests the very knowledgeable people of Chicago with some measure of control over their schools. It's time to end the practice of mayoral-appointed CEOs.

The judge's sentence of 4.5 years for the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools didn't really send quite the tough, corruption-ending message that he seemed to want to send. But the entrenched corruption surrounding CPS can be chipped away at with votes, and a democratically elected board of ed who does not exist to fulfill one man's whims and their own business-expanding dreams. Pressure your state legislators to get this bill through this time.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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