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Chicago's school board needs watchdogs, not Rahm's lapdogs

An elected school board could stop the mayor from wasting money.

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the March 7 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the River Point office tower, which was subsidized by $29.5 million in TIF money - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the March 7 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the River Point office tower, which was subsidized by $29.5 million in TIF money

As Illinois state legislators last week debated the latest incarnation of a bill for an elected school board in Chicago, we got tens of millions of reminders why it should be passed.

There's the $29.5 million in property tax dollars Mayor Rahm Emanuel diverted from the broke public school system to subsidize the construction of River Point, an upscale office building at 444 W. Lake Street in the West Loop, one of Chicago's wealthiest neighborhoods.

That TIF deal passed in 2012. But on March 7, Rahm showed up for the tower's ribbon-cutting ceremony around the same time his appointees were talking about cutting back the school year by 20 days because Chicago Public Schools doesn't have enough money to pay its employees.

C'mon, Mr. Mayor. You should be showing remorse for wasting millions—not celebrating it.

Then there's the $20 million the mayor's appointed school board awarded in 2013 to a couple of scam artists who were bribing then schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to use her clout to get them a no-bid principal-training contract.

Yes, the Supes Academy contracting scandal is in the news again. On Monday, the feds outlined their case for why Gary Solomon, the co-owner of Supes, should get nine years in prison for masterminding the scam.

Finally, there's this important number to consider: zero—or the number of school board members who voted against the Supes deal or questioned the River Point handout (or any TIF handout for that matter).

People, I think it's time we acknowledge that our current system, whereby we give the mayor the power to appoint whomever he wants to oversee CPS, is a failure.

The state legislature came close to passing an elected school board bill last year, but Emanuel got his pal—senate president John Cullerton—to kill it. Apparently the mayor doesn't like to give up control of anything.

Northwest-side state rep Rob Martwick recently reintroduced the measure. On March 15, a house committee held hearings on his bill, to which the mayor dispatched two emissaries: former school board member Jesse Ruiz and CPS chief education officer Janice Jackson.

Ruiz said an elected school board would present a "grave risk."

A "grave" risk of what? Wasting money on TIF deals?

And Jackson blamed the current fiscal mess on the state. "An elected school board would have no more authority than our existing board to raise additional revenues for CPS," Jackson testified. "And revenue is at the root of our problem."

OK, one more time. Yes, the state woefully underfunds low-income school districts like Chicago's. (See Chance the Rapper's recent attempts to sway the governor on this point.)

But clearly, Emanuel exacerbates a bad situation by recklessly wasting the money he's got. Mayor Daley did it too—let's not forget about him.

And that's where the appointed school board comes in. Even in the board's current appointed form, its members have the power to review and oppose TIF districts or use the bully pulpit to speak out against them. But ever since the state gave the mayor the power to appoint board members in 1995, the board members he's selected have looked the other way while the mayor throws good money out the window. It's pretty obvious our mayors carefully vet potential appointees to make sure they're of the rubber-stamp persuasion.

Nothing personal against any particular board member. They're clearly all smart and successful people, generally from the worlds of law, banking, or business (with a university president occasionally thrown into the mix).

The board members are supposed to be watchdogs—to provide fiduciary oversight of CPS. And yet, year after year, they behave as mayoral lapdogs, looking the other way as our mayors waste money and the system falls hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Years ago I asked a Daley aide why board members never protested as more than $200 million in property taxes was annually diverted from the schools to the tax increment financing program. He told me it's 'cause the mayor appoints "team players." By that he meant the mayoral team. How about just once having a school board member who's on the kids' team—or the taxpayers'?

Whenever I raise this issue, some mayoral insider will tell me: If voters don't like what the mayor does with the schools, they should vote him out of office.

That's easier said than done when Rahm, like Daley before him, is bolstered by big campaign contributions from the corporate types he puts on the school board.

In any event, it sounds like something Kellyanne Conway would say to voters complaining about President Trump's policies. Yes, the people elected Trump. But that doesn't mean Congress should let him operate without oversight. A president—like a mayor—can do a lot of damage in four years.

Right now, Rahm has no oversight in regard to the schools. He can destroy them if he wants. In fact, sometimes I think that's his goal.

Last week, the Illinois house schools committee passed the elected school board bill by a margin of 18-1. Of course, the house has never been the obstacle to the bill.

In 2016, Martwick's measure passed the full house 108-4, winning overwhelming Republican support—no small feat given the bitter rivalry between Governor Bruce Rauner and house speaker Michael Madigan.

"Republican legislators like their suburban elected school districts," says Martwick. "They have no objection to this bill."

It doesn't hurt that they probably got the green light from Rauner because the bill messes with Rahm. It's amazing how Republicans have the courage of their convictions when the big man gives them the OK.

Allow me this brief tangent, though, to point out that even if they don't have a problem with an elected school board, Illinois Republicans do have objections to teachers and their unions. Last year, the governor's floor leader—Glen Ellyn state rep James Durkin—introduced a bill that would have prohibited teachers, even retired teachers receiving pensions, from running for the hoped-for elected school board. It also banned contributions to school board candidates from teachers or the CTU.

In his day job, Durkin's a senior partner with the downtown law firm Arnstein & Lehr. He's in the Municipal & Governmental Practice Group, according to the firm's website, which among other things offers legal representation to cities and/or developers looking to take advantage of TIFs.

I say we extend Durkin's proposed contributions ban to any person, place, or thing that's feeding from the TIF trough—since that money's diverted from the schools in the first place.

According to the General Assembly's website, the last official action on Durkin's bill was adjournment sine die. That's Latin for "without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing." Or Madiganese for Go fuck yourself, Durkin!

Anyway, it was Democrats—led by senate president Cullerton—not Republicans who prevented the school board bill from passing last year.

So, people, if you want an elected school board, you'll have to pressure Chicago-based state senators such as Kwame Raoul, Heather Steans, Iris Martinez, and Omar Aquino to go to Cullerton and say, Hey, man, stop being Rahm's puppet!

We have enough of them on the school board already.  v


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