Our Feudal School Board

CPS special education teacher & activist Sarah Chambers in front of the Board of Education, December 2016 (Chicago Reader)
“It was a depressing display, like some feudal society, with subjects asking for mercy from a panel of powerful lords.” — E. Ewing, Ghosts in the Schoolyard (p.45)

I was stopped cold when I read this passage in Eve Ewing’s fantastic Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a powerful and critical analysis of Chicago Public School’s closure of 47 schools in 2013 that primarily impacted Black communities. But this one sentence about the CPS Board froze me with it’s pinpoint accuracy, expressing a sentiment I had felt but not quite articulated. The Board, unelected and wholly appointed by the mayor, rules over the school system with no real accountability to educators, students, families, or communities. Board members answer only to the potentate who invests them with their powers, the mayor.

This political reality sets the stage for monthly ritual performances of democratic governance of Chicago’s schools. The Board meets in its downtown chambers starting midmorning to review the pre-published agenda. The location and time of the meetings prohibit many from attending, though in the past the Board occasionally met in the evenings or at schools out in the neighborhoods. One of the best sources of information from the Board meetings are the real time twitter feeds of education reporters and activists attending the meetings (#CPSBoard); below, I have pulled in tweets from the December 5th, 2018 Board meeting to emphasize a few points.

Chicago Board of Education, January 2017 (WBEZ)

Regardless of when and where, the Board rarely ever publicly deliberates over any agenda item. In recent years, meetings start with a a recognition of CPS students before segueing into a report from the CEO. This is pure public relations, a presentation targeted to the public, not the Board itself as evidenced by the typical lack of questions or critique by Board members. It’s a time for CPS to tout its successes or highlight new initiatives, not for public conversation between high-level administrators and those charged to govern the system.

This past Wednesday the Board was faced with a controversial proposals to close two charter schools and open three more, which were introduced by the CEO with her recommendations. This set of actions, which would potentially impact thousands of students and hundreds of educators as well as cost many millions of dollars, generated no questions from Board members.

After these presentations but before moving into closed session, where deliberation supposedly takes place but from which no minutes are published, there is public participation. Each meeting, the Board allots 60 2-minute speaking slots; sign up for these is first come, first served on the Monday morning preceding the Wednesday meeting. Each speaker is supposed to address a different topic, though this rule seems selectively enforced; some well organized groups will snap up several slots and relay essentially the same message to the Board time and again, sometimes month after month.

When elected officials, such as aldermen or state legislators, wish to address the Board, they have to sign up, too. Though they get to speak first and are generally allowed to run over 2 minutes, this is an odd spectacle — democratically elected officials taking up limited public participation spots to address another government office. Often, these electeds are pleading the case for more resources or pressing for action on behalf of their constituents. This past Board meeting was no different.

Illinois State Representative Luis Arroyo addressing the CPS Board
10th Ward Alderwoman Susan S. Garza addressing the CPS Board
10th Ward Alderwoman Susan S. Garza addressing the CPS Board

The site of an elected public official standing in front of an unelected board and beseeching them to act lends to the feudal feeling of Board meetings — all are supplicants before the Board.

But not all speakers reduce themselves when their 2 minutes comes up. Some remain bold and pose direct questions to the Board, only to be received with stoney stares and very, very rarely a relevant response.

It must be noted that this is a risky gambit, to demand an answer from the Board or to show real outrage over the outrageous conditions that persist across CPS. Citizens have been removed and even banned from future Board meetings for breaking this decorum.

Shannon Bennett, an activist with Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, being removed from the podium by security, May 2013 (Daily Herald)

Still, people try. What else can they do in this system where all power over the schools is hoarded by the mayor? Access to the mayor himself is extremely limited, save for those of great wealth or great connections. Though only a simulacrum of democracy, at least the Board meetings provide a forum for people to express their needs and make public their case for our schools. It may be futile for the principal of a charter school recommended for closure to implore the Board for a stay, but where else can power be confronted in CPS?

The inaccessibility of the Board is never more evident than when CPS’ own Inspector General signs up for a public participation slot. The office charged with ensuring the system acts legally gets no special consideration. It has to urge the Board to act or provide necessary materials in a 2 minute pitch, such as when then CEO Forrest Claypool was being investigated for hiring a crony.

The practiced purposelessness of these Board meetings leads to bizarre moments, such as a speaker and student requesting that the Board rename Columbus Day given the terrible history of colonization. When the Board President says that the Board has no power to address this issue, the speaker corrects the Board President. The Board can indeed do something about this. Is this really not known, or only ceremonial ignorance?

And then, of course, there are the urgent pleas from students and families in desperate need. In recent months, a steady stream of speakers have begged the Board to do something about the severe nursing shortage across CPS.

In response to public pressure and a series of articles in the Sun-Times, this month the Board finally put forward a plan to invest more in nursing…but there was no public discussion of this plan, not even an effort to try to tout it. There was no need to directly address a pressing concern — one in which children’s lives are on the line — no accounting to the public for action or inaction.

And, like almost always, public participation ends and no Board member has any questions to ask despite the final opportunity. They vote to move into closed session, where actual business takes place: contracts approved, policies amended, schools closed, and so on.

For a couple years now, I have had real skepticism about installing an elected representative school board for CPS. I worry that without campaign finance provisions, Chicago school board races will become like LA’s — awash in cash from folks seeking to privatize or otherwise profit off our schools. I worry that the conflict of interest provisions are weak and that the city will be gerrymandered by the state Democratic party to further cement machine control of the city.

I still believe that these things are likely to occur with an elected school board in Chicago. But now seeing the Board meetings as monthly medieval role plays has pushed me over. No more feudal lords. The school system is not a feifdom. It’s a public institution that must be accountable to the us, the citizens of Chicago.