CITY HALL — City Council progressives called for a citywide referendum on an elected school board this week, only to see it assigned to the committee "where good legislation goes to die."
Ald. John Arena (45th) submitted the resolution at Wednesday's City Council meeting, and it was specifically labeled to go to the Education Committee. Some 14 aldermen immediately signed on, including members of the Progressive Reform Caucus, which includes Arena.
Yet the measure, which would call for a referendum as part of the primary election next spring, was sidetracked to the Rules Committee, much like a recent proposal to divert a surplus in Tax Increment Finance funds to Chicago Public Schools sponsored by Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).
"I'm not surprised at all," Arena said Friday. "It's a tactic they've used before."
The Rules Committee was a notorious dumping ground for legislation uncomfortable to the mayoral administration under the chairmanship of Ald. Richard Mell (33rd). With Mell's retirement, council members wondered aloud if things would change under Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the new Rules chairman, who formerly served as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's president pro tempore.
A proposal for an independent budget office, sponsored by Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), was moved from Rules to the Budget Committee just this week, after Emanuel came out in favor of it.
Yet other ordinances, such as one calling for for transparency on all city privatization deals, submitted by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), and another placing a moratorium on new charter schools, submitted by Ald. Matthew O'Shea (19th), remain mired in the Rules Committee with no hearings scheduled.
The need for an elected school board has been a familiar refrain for activists protesting against this year's CPS closings. Petitions for a referendum continue to circulate online after mayoral forces quashed an attempt to put such a referendum on the ballot citywide a year ago. Even then, activists circulated petitions to place it on the ballot in some precincts in November, and it won the support of 87 percent of those who had a chance to vote on it.
"We're just trying to give the entire city a chance to weigh in," Arena said. "I wouldn't be comfortable with an entirely elected school board. I would love to see a hybrid. We would have mayoral appointees, elected, how they're elected, where they're from — all has to be discussed.
"But let's have the discussion," he added, and bring city residents into it, starting with the referendum.
The seven current members of the Board of Education have all been appointed by Emanuel.
The Board of Education was placed under mayoral control as part of the reforms enacted by Mayor Richard M. Daley in the mid 1990s. Many big cities nationwide have gone to appointed school boards in an attempt to cut through bureaucracy. Yet critics say the appointed boards are unresponsive to the desires of the communities involved in the decisions they make, as in the 50 school closings approved by the Board of Education in the spring.
Changing the board's selection process would require action by the General Assembly, but Arena is hoping a referendum would lead state legislators to move on it.
First things first, however. "I just hope the new Rules chair moves this out in a timely fashion," Arena said.
Harris did not return calls for comment.