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Annals of school reform: Is this any way to nominate a board?

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Mayor Daley maligns it, his key aldermanic allies want to change it, and even its supporters call it unwieldy.

But the arduous, time-consuming process of nominating new school-board members recently lumbered through yet another season of turmoil and doubt.

In April the 28-member school-board nominating commission delivered to Daley a list of 18 candidates for five board vacancies. The mayor selected four, leaving one vacancy.

"It's a cumbersome process that discourages a lot of qualified people from applying," says 40th Ward Alderman Patrick O'Connor, chairman of the City Council's education committee. "And it doesn't give the mayor enough room to pick the people he wants to do the job that has to get done."

Funny thing is, both Daley and O'Connor praise the latest round of nominees. So how come so many people are complaining? The answer, of course, has to do with politics.

"If things go well, the mayor can always say 'I picked them; this is my board,'" says one member of the nominating commission. "But if things go wrong--if there's a strike or the schools go broke--the mayor can always say 'Don't blame me, it's the nominating commission's fault.'"

The commission is a by-product of the 1988 school reform law, which, among other things, placed each school under the control of the school's principal and a locally elected council of parents, teachers, and community representatives. Before that law took effect, the mayor was free to appoint whomever he or she wanted. School activists had complained that the school board reflected little more than the mayor's rubber stamp. In the spirit of local control--and in a feeble attempt to get city politics out of education--the new law guaranteed each local school council a say on who sat on the central board.

It works this way: Each LSC elects one of its members to sit on one of ten grade-school district councils. The district councils then elect two members to sit on the school-board nominating commission. The high school district contributes three more members to the commission. The remaining five commission members are appointed by the mayor.

"The whole point is to ensure that parents and residents get a say in this important decision," says Lafayette Ford, chairman of the nominating commission and a member of the local council at Lucy Flower Vocational High School in West Garfield Park. "That's what local control is all about."

The commission members (who are unpaid) must sit through many long and often mind-numbing debates. For this round, they began soliciting nominees in August of 1991. Within a month they had received 89 written applications. Eventually 58 candidates were invited for interviews. After that the commission members began their internal debate.

By all accounts this year's debate was less contentious than previous ones, which often got bogged down in matters of race and ethnicity. At a low point in the 1990 deliberations, two of Daley's appointees opposed one candidate, who came from Spain, on the grounds that she really wasn't Hispanic. (The mayor's appointees claimed she was "Iberian.")

"I think the process worked as well as it could have given the way it is set up," says Leonard Dominguez, the mayor's chief education adviser, who was not on the 1990 commission. "From what I had heard, I was expecting something a lot different. I expected something almost like the Russian revolution with all the different racial, ethnic, and political factions."

This commission, however, was not without its factions. Several black members, for instance, insisted that the mayor shouldn't be given an opportunity to reduce the number of black board members. Other commissioners wanted to weed out any nominee who endorsed public subsidies for private tuition--an idea for which Daley has expressed some sympathy.

Their task was made more difficult by the fact that the law requires them to present their nominees in slates of three, and the mayor can only select one person from a slate or reject the whole slate. "The slates were arranged not by race or ethnicity, but by expertise," says Ford. "There were no all-black slates or all-white slates--we didn't want that. But we had slates of people with similar backgrounds."

For instance, there was a slate that featured Joanne Alter, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District; Bertha Magana, an incumbent on the school board; and Tamera Thompson, who operates a day-care facility on the south side. "This slate consisted of people with knowledge of government," says Ford.

Another slate, whose expertise was public policy, consisted of Willie Mack, superintendent of Calumet Township School District 132; Barbara DeKerf, an assistant Cook County state's attorney; and Susan Klonsky, a free-lance writer and LSC activist. (Daley did not select any members from this slate, arguing that DeKerf and Mack were ineligible to serve on the board because of their governmental jobs. The commission must present him with another slate, which can include Klonsky.)

The slates were announced in April, and there was almost instantaneous criticism. "This commission is playing politics," says one alderman close to Daley. "Take the selection of Alter. She'd be great on the board. But the commission knows that Daley would never take her--not with Magana on the same slate. Daley can't overlook a Hispanic woman."

Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, a member of the council education committee, complained that many of the nominees lack a long-range plan or "vision" for improving the school system. Others complained that there were not enough black and Hispanic professionals--a complaint for which Ford says the commission can't be blamed.

"We can't force people to apply," says Ford. "I can understand why people are reluctant to apply for the board. It's a tough job. This is a four-year term. People average 20 hours a week--minimum. It's unpaid. Unrespected. No matter what vote you make, someone is going to be unhappy. Anyone who is willing to put up with that kind of abuse must be recognized for civic commitment."

Even what qualities to look for in prospective board members is open to debate. "We're selecting someone to sit on the board of a $2.5 billion corporation," says Ford. "That takes some sophistication and understanding of finances."

The need for financial acumen is more pressing because the board faces a budget deficit of at least $150 million. "The board raised $140 million in new property taxes. Now they say they want more property taxes," says Eisendrath. "They have fewer students and they say they can't cut anywhere. Well, the city laid people off. General Motors laid people off. IBM laid people off. When you don't have money that's what you have to do."

And yet the bottom-line mentality that governs General Motors may not work with schools. "It's one thing to say, 'Close some schools and fire some employees,' but you have to ask yourself what will be the consequences on the children," says Debbie Sawyer, a member of the nominating commission. "We're not making cars, we're educating children."

As Sawyer and other commissioners see it, the board of education must include people other than bankers, lawyers, and downtown power brokers. It must include civic-minded residents who have children in the system. "We need people on the board who care about children," says Sawyer. "Who care about children in the public schools."

In April the commission delivered its six slates to Daley. Forty-five days later, Daley made his selections. "By law he's supposed to do it in 30 days, but we're not complaining," says Ford. "He had a lot on his mind, starting with the flood. It was a reasonable time. You have to remember that last time it took him six months to make his choices."

This time Daley chose Magana; Charles Curtis, a supervisor with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department; Clinton Bristow, an incumbent on the board; and John Valinote, a manager at IBM.

Daley also let it be known that he would like to do away with the commission, or at least make it advisory. "If we're going to hold the mayor responsible for the actions of the school board, then we have to give him the authority that he needs," says Dominguez. "This is the only board where he does not have complete appointment powers. It's very frustrating if you are held responsible for something you have no control over."

Daley and his allies contend that many hotshot executives are too busy to bother with the commission and the requisite interviews. "The way it is now, you have to go through a screening process and then there's no guarantee that the commission or the mayor will choose you," says O'Connor. "If I'm an executive with a corporation, perhaps I don't have the time to take the chance that I would get this far. Whereas under the old system the mayor can call me up and say 'I'd like to consider you for the board.' You only have to look at the City Colleges board, where [Helene Curtis CEO] Ron Gidwitz is chairman, to see how it can work."

Daley has proposed to abolish the commission (while also cutting the school board from 15 to 9 members), a suggestion that has stirred opposition.

"I don't see how the mayor can say he doesn't have a lot of choices under this system," says Ford. "In the case of four board members, he not only chose them once, but he reappointed them. How can he deny that these are his people?"

Other commissioners wonder if the mayor and his allies are using the commission as a scapegoat. "For years, we had the old system of selecting school board that Daley wants to bring back, and look where it got us," says Sawyer. "The schools have a lot of problems. But I don't think we'll solve any of them by blaming everything on the commission."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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