Controversial school decisions, with little discussion in public

Chicago's school board members almost never vote 'no'

April 27, 2011

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(WBEZ/Bill Healy)
Board member Clare Munana whispers to member Norman Bobins at a recent meeting. Bobins has been on the board since 1995.

Wednesday marks the last regular meeting of the current Chicago school board. A new board named by Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is expected to take over soon. At this moment of transition, WBEZ checks in on the working style of Chicago’s school board, and its approach to open government.

RICHARDSON-LOWRY: Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. We’re about to get started.

Each month, the tireless activists, the frustrated parents, and those who’ve tried every other avenue show up to appeal to the seven people who govern the schools.

They get two minutes to make their case.

The people ask for small miracles, like running tracks or reading programs.

And big miracles:

MOTHER: Let us stay at our home school.  We beseech you to not cast us out and foreclose on us! To not put us in the street. Because what you’re doing is paramount to making us homeless.

But the pleas, no matter how emotional, rarely elicit reaction from board members. Over the past decade the Board has taken bitterly controversial decisions—it’s closed some 90 schools, authorized a slew of charters, and approved billions of dollars in spending—nearly always without public debate or discussion.

With few exceptions over the past 16 years, votes sound like this:

Mr. BUTT: Aye.
SECRETARY: Mr. Bobins: (Aye)
SECRETARY: Ms. Munana: (Aye)
SECRETARY:  Seven ayes, zero nays.

That makes critics wonder if their voices are even heard…and what’s happening behind the scenes. Occasionally, the school district quietly withdraws proposals the board was set to consider,  but how that actually happens—and whether it ever violates the state’s Open Meetings Act— remains a mystery to the public.

ANDREA LEE: You know I’ve been down to the Board for the past 11 years.

Community organizer Andrea Lee figures she’s been to the Board of Ed maybe 25 times with different parent groups, often to oppose school closings.

LEE: A lot of people question how much the board is taking in. And how much they exercise their own power to say, ‘I’d like to hear more about this’ or, ‘I don’t think we got enough information about this. Maybe we shouldn’t vote on this today.’

And advocates for greater openness point out other things:

Board meetings are held on weekday mornings, making it hard for parents, students and teachers to participate.

This board has voted to keep all meeting minutes from closed sessions secret going back 16 years, since the mayor took over the schools.

Andy Shaw heads up the Better Government Association.

SHAW: It’s too closed, it’s too rigid, it’s too unresponsive to be democratic.

Kenneth Wong studies mayoral control of schools. The Brown University professor says that even though the mayor appoints the board and the CEO, the board should not be a rubber stamp.

WONG: I think it’s important to develop meaningful checks and balances.

There should be committees that discuss issues in public, Wong says. Like a committee to evaluate the CEO. A committee on the budget. Chicago’s board has just one committee—created last year after a scandal involving improper use of board credit cards. Wong says board members need to rely on independent research to figure out if policies are working or not. 

WONG: Oftentimes too many school board members may be reacting based on their own understanding of the issues, and their own understanding may be limited and may be outdated and may not be drawing on the best evidence up-to-date.

Board members did not return calls for this story—they almost never comment in the press, never explain their votes. Board president Mary Richardson-Lowry said via e-mail that a lot of work is done before the board meeting even happens, as board members interact with CPS staff and community members.

The next board president, David Vitale, did call me back.

VITALE: My own view is that we need to be totally transparent. My bias is that the public has a right to be engaged, and I expect to follow that bias.

Vitale says he needs to catch up on why meeting minutes are still secret after 16 years. He says public views and opinions DO influence board decisions—even if that’s not apparent— and he says that will continue.

A correction has been made to this story. An earlier version of this story misidentified Kenneth Wong's affiliation. He is chair of the education department at Brown University.