The announcement last week of the federal investigation into Chicago Public Schools and its CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s leave of absence has alarmed many aldermen, who only two weeks ago were fielding reelection campaign questions from constituents concerned about the state of CPS.
Complicating matters for aldermen is that many voters believe City Council has some oversight authority over CPS. However, since 1995 aldermen have had no legal authority over CPS, despite the fact that its $5.76 billion budget is more than half the size of the city’s budget and half of every constituents’ property tax bill.
Aldertrack spoke to a broad array of aldermen this weekend to get a sense of the Council on the public school’s growing financial and leadership problems. While some aldermen are content for the schools to be entirely the Mayor’s problem, most expect the issue of an elected school board to become more prominent–not less–as the CPS crisis continues.
Aldermen know they will have to live with the results of whatever schools solution is found, but for now they are giving newly appointed CPS Acting CEO Jesse Ruiz an opportunity to get to work.
In our conversations with aldermen, Ruiz was universally spoken of well. A “gentleman” with “integrity,” “Jesse Ruiz is exceptional and has only the highest standards,” we were told. Many alderman have worked with him as a CPS Board member and those with Springfield experience had good things to say about interacting with him downstate.
While the tendency among aldermen is usually to be positive about a new mayoral appointment, we heard few reservations about him. But, everyone Aldertrack spoke to expects Ruiz to be a temporary appointment, and it is unclear exactly how temporary that it will be.
The Chicago Public Schools system has big financial problems, including a hundreds of millions of dollars budget shortfall for 2016, a multi-billion dollars pension liabilityand many hundreds of millions of dollars of risky financial engineering penalties still to be resolved.
Throughout his hard-fought reelection campaign Mayor Rahm Emanuel emphasized that he had the competence to guide the city through its beleaguered financial state to solvency.
Yet state law requires approval from the State legislature and Governor Bruce Rauner for almost all the possible solutions for fixing CPS: pension reform, altering the property tax levy, changing the state aid formula and especially changing the governance structure of Chicago’s schools.
In addition, the 1995 School Reform Amendatory Act stripped City Council of any oversight of CPS, giving Chicago’s mayor total authority to appoint the school board and to oversee the school budget, while creating elected Local School Councils to approve individual schools’ discretionary budgets and hire principals. Before the 1995 reforms City Council approved board members and approved bond issues, but today Council is almost totally sidelined.
“Since 1995, our City Council members have have zilch, nada when it comes to education accountability,” Ald. Rick Munoz (22) told Aldertrack.
Yet, of the aldermen we spoke to, there was little talk of increasing aldermanic oversight.
“The use of power is seldom found in law. It’s about influence, being a voice for your community,” said Ald. Will Burns (4).
But many aldermen expect there to be some fight over elected school boards in the coming year.
“I’m sure some people will see this as an opportunity,” said Ald. Ameya Pawar (47). “Having politics in running our schools is not a bad thing, it goes to taxpayer oversight.”
“At the heart of the debate is who should be the Board of Education,” said Ald. Munoz. “I think [the Progressive Caucus’] advocacy efforts are going to continue to ensure this Board of Education has an elected school board. With or without the crisis.”
But others point out the cold reality of the Mayor’s and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s opposition to an elected school board make change to the system unlikely.
“Whether or not there will ever actually be an elected school board, would obviously take a change in the state statutes,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40), Mayor Emanuel’s City Council floor leader. “I think the Governor is already on record that he would not support it and would therefore probably veto it. So, if you are looking for an answer, in the short term there will not be too much change…unless he were likely to change his mind.”
CPS’ current problems, “[are] not relevant,” to creation of an elected school board, said Ald. Joe Moore (49). “Getting elected to something does not mean honest and clean government,”
“I don’t think you could have an elected school board without a transition,” said Ald. Emma Mitts (37). “It would hamper what is already going on with the finances,”
Ald. Burns, who believes the school board has acted in good faith with aldermen, suggested moving more power to the grassroots. “We need to open up the 1988 school reform and give more power to Local School Councils,” he said. They have had their power diminished by the central office.”
Since Ald. Latasha Thomas (17) is retiring and the Council’s education committee chair will be vacant, Ald. Joe Moreno (1) would like to see hearings. “Whoever will be the new chair of education should start with hearings on the record, on what kind of school board we should have and aldermanic oversight,” he said. “I’d argue they should bring in the charter schools, education experts. Have some thorough hearings on this. Let the people testify.”