South-side legislator joins the fight for community schools—right before the election | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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South-side legislator joins the fight for community schools—right before the election

Charges fly between Rep Christian Mitchell and challenger Jay Travis over who's the real education advocate.

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I've been around Chicago long enough to realize that if you want an accurate account of how our government works, you shouldn't pick up any campaign literature during election season.

But even by the loose standards of local politics, the flyer that state representative Christian Mitchell recently sent to voters is a classic.

Take a bow, Representative Mitchell—it's always important to aim high.

Mitchell is in the midst of a heated reelection battle against veteran community activist Jay Travis in the 26th legislative district, which stretches along the south lakefront from the Loop to the Indiana border.

In the flyer, Mitchell uses a Q&A format to claim to be a leader in the movement for an elected school board: "Question: Who represents us on our school board?

"Answer: No one. Our children's education is too important for us to not have a voice."

And then, in smaller print: "Mitchell has sponsored a bill to create an elected school board so that local communities get more say in their schools."

OK, I can't resist digging into this.

In case you weren't aware, Chicago's seven-member school board is handpicked by the mayor. His appointees don't even need approval by the City Council, which I'm sure would be happy to apply its rubber stamp if asked.

Not surprisingly, the current board ends up acting as a wholly owned subsidiary of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It routinely approves whatever budget cuts, school closings, and charter handouts he proposes—and it does so with indifference to the crying and cajoling of the parents, students, and teachers most affected by the mayor's cruel policies.

As a result, parents, union members, and other school activists have mounted a campaign to replace the existing system with an elected school board.

Of course, Mayor Emanuel has used his considerable muscle to block the effort at almost every turn.

In 2012 he had Alderman Joe Moore (49th) kill a proposal to hold a citywide referendum on the issue. And last year he enlisted Alderman Michelle Harris, chairman of the council's rules committee, to bury a proposal for hearings on an elected board.

Representative Mitchell changed his mind in the fall, when—by a strange coincidence, I'm sure—veteran community organizer Jay Travis announced she was running against him.

The mayor's influence also extends to the statehouse. In February 2013 south-side state rep Elgie Sims introduced a bill that would create an elected school board by 2015. It got exactly one cosponsor: state rep Emanuel Chris Welch, whose district is predominantly in the near-western suburbs.

The mayor's lobbyists worked against it. And house speaker Michael Madigan made sure it never got out of the house rules committee—which, like its City Council counterpart, serves as a graveyard for proposals the power brokers don't favor.

Just to be clear, not one north-side legislator signed on to Sims's proposal. As the facts continually show, when it comes to political wimpiness, the north side is number one.

Mitchell, too, declined to cosponsor the school board legislation. In fact, he declared his opposition to it when some of his constituents stopped by his office to lobby him for it.

"Mitchell told us that he was against that elected school board bill," says Steven Guy, a member of the local school council at Fuller school in Kenwood. "He said he was for a hybrid school board, where the mayor got some appointees and the people got to elect the others. He said that people from the community weren't competent enough to run the school system."

He used that word—"competent"?

"Yes, he did."

Interesting. So by that measure, "competence" is defined as sitting on a board and doing whatever the mayor tells you.

His position on the school board may have been the least of his education sins. Around the same time, Mitchell also refused to endorse a proposal—backed by many south-side legislators—calling for a moratorium on school closings.

But—by a strange coincidence, I'm sure— he changed his mind about the elected school board in the fall, when Travis announced she was running against him.

Born and raised in Chicago—and a graduate of Kenwood High—Travis is a formidable candidate largely because of her years as executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. Among other things, she negotiated a community benefits agreement with the city's Olympics backers.

In this case, Travis and KOCO were early and impassioned fighters against school closings and for an elected school board.

On October 10, as Travis was gathering signatures for her nominating petitions, Mitchell officially signed on as cosponsor to the elected school board proposal.

So now it has three sponsors but remains lodged in the rules committee. At this rate, it may be a law by the next century.

The candidates have different explanations for why Mitchell changed his position on an elected school board.

Travis says—well, you can imagine what she says. "It was quite interesting when, on the week I circulated petitions, Representative Mitchell signed on as a sponsor," she says. "I think he signed on because he wanted to be able to send out that flyer, even if it's misleading."

Not so, says Mitchell. He insists that Travis's candidacy had nothing to do with his ongoing evolution on the school board. He says it's just another coincidence that he's signing on to the measure now that the heavy fighting with the mayor over the cuts and closings is over.

Mitchell says he was originally for a "hybrid board" with five mayoral appointees and four elected members. "What moved me toward a full elected school board is talking to constituents."

As for the alleged "competent" quote, Mitchell maintains that it's not true. "That never happened," he says. "That's not the kind of thing I would say."

I will say this for Mitchell: He's an exceedingly charming middle-of-the-road Democrat with an inspirational story. Raised by a single mom in west-suburban Westchester, he went on to graduate from the University of Chicago.

Plus, he's had enough sense to cultivate an alliance with Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle, who has endorsed him.

For this campaign, Travis is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union and its president, Karen Lewis.

But who knows—in a few months, Mitchell, Travis, and Lewis may be joined together in a holy alliance as Preckwinkle runs against Mayor Emanuel. That would get everyone's blood pumping.

In the meantime, welcome to the struggle, Representative Mitchell. Better late than never.

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