Rubber stamp or glue?

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Clare Muñana and Rufus Williams

Photo by John Booz

Clare Muñana and Rufus Williams

When a vote to authorize a worker’s compensation settlement came before Mayor Richard Daley’s handpicked School Board back in April, the trustees did something unique—they split their vote.

The 5-2 decision marked the third time in 12 years that the Board’s members disagreed on the record. What’s more, not one split decision has dealt with educational matters, but rather contracts for food services and wireless networking.

That’s thousands of unanimous votes since 1995, the year Mayor Daley replaced a School Board nominated by a grassroots committee with today’s corporate-like oversight body. There was nary a peep of public debate over controversial measures like school closings as trustees cast the final say on budgets, policy and business affairs for Chicago Public Schools.

“They pretty much are a rubber stamp Board,” says Don Moore, founder and executive director of Designs for Change, which supports local school councils.

He, like many early school reform advocates, recalls a more accessible School Board, before Daley’s takeover, that held informal committee hearings to hammer out agreements on schools.

Those are no more. Today’s trustees follow lockstep the chain of command that starts with the mayor, his anointed board president and chief executive officer.

Those who support mayoral control of public schools, which is catching on nationally, say this arrangement works best, with top-down leadership making crystal clear who’s accountable for schools.

A national model

Daley has appointed trustees directly ever since Republican lawmakers agreed 12 years ago to give him control over a financially wracked and underachieving school district. It was just enough rope, some surmised back then, for Daley to hang himself.

But labor peace and balanced budgets followed, with test scores and graduation rates inching up.

Taking cues from Chicago and Boston, other urban districts have followed suit, changing the way school boards are selected—scrapping those that are elected, for instance—and granting more authority to mayors and sometimes governors.

It’s happened in Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia and Providence. More recently, Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Adrian Fenty took the reins.

A similar measure, however, ran aground in Los Angeles when courts rejected a state law that would have put Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in charge.

The National School Boards Association supported that decision and has called on mayors to limit school district power grabs to non-educational issues such as poverty and neighborhood safety.

Anne Bryant, the group’s executive director, disapproves of mayoral takeovers in Los Angeles, New York and D.C., which have taken away budget oversight and other authority from boards while offering little or no opportunity for community input. She stops short, however, of condemning mayoral control, noting that no credible research links improved student learning with either appointed or elected outfits.

The crux of good school governance is clear goal setting and a plan of attack, says Bryant. She’s seen that in Norfolk, Va., where the board is elected; in Boston, where a nominating committee screens candidates for the mayor; and Chicago, where the mayor has complete say.

Greg Richmond, who spearheaded Chicago’s charter movement until he founded a national group of charter authorizers, says the stability of Chicago’s School Board has led to improved test scores and graduation rates. School systems across the country go through constant changes in leadership and become unglued from their reform agendas, he notes.

“You cannot effectively implement improvements when you’re here today and gone tomorrow,” Richmond adds.

A meeting with the president

In Chicago, the chain of command starts with the mayor, who is close to setting a record as the city’s longest-serving top official. He handpicks the School Board trustees, who sign off on the mayor’s pick for chief executive officer, and, technically, choose amongst themselves who will serve as Board president and vice president.

Next up is Board President Rufus Williams, who is the Board’s public face and gatekeeper. No policy or matter of business comes before the trustees for a vote unless Williams has approved it first. A week before the Board’s monthly meetings, Williams presides over what are called “the president’s briefings”—all-day question-and-answer sessions with school officials that some insiders have described as “brutal.”

As many as 80 district employees pack a large meeting room at central office, vying for a place on the School Board agenda to, say, grant charters or fund a new reading program. Staffers make presentations under close scrutiny by Williams, who, since his appointment a year ago, has led particularly grueling sessions as he learns the ropes, say officials who have attended those meetings.

Area instructional officers are regularly called on the carpet at these briefings. At each session, two AIOs run through test scores and attendance data in their areas and then are grilled by Williams on how they plan to step up the game and address the achievement gap.

“Word is out,” says one school official, that Williams expects AIOs to thoroughly know the numbers and be ready to explain any shortcomings.

“It’s the most comprehensive screening and vetting mechanism,” notes Richmond, who often ran the gauntlet when he was in charge of overseeing the district’s charter schools. “The rest of the Board relies greatly on the president.”

On rare occasions, other trustees join briefings. LaSalle Bank President Norman Bobins keeps an eye on bond deals. Alberto Carrero is interested in Renaissance 2010 and making sure the new schools help relieve overcrowding in Latino neighborhoods, notes Richmond.

Tapped for expertise

Outside of the president’s briefings, Board trustees run interference for the district on matters ranging from student health to financial planning.

Banker and former trustee Gene Saffold, for example, lent a hand in the district’s construction bonding during his 10-year appointment. Far beyond giving advice, Saffold himself would present the district’s plans before credit ratings boards, notes Joseph O’Keefe, a senior analyst at Fitch Ratings’ Chicago office.

Trustee Tariq Butt, a professor of medicine, weighs in on school immunization programs. Clare Muñana has put her tech and financial skills to work helping the district develop new data management systems.

Catalyst Chicago requested interviews with the district’s trustees to gain insight about their views on school reform and how members relate to one another, especially during closed-door “executive sessions,” which precede rapid-fire voting on monthly agenda items.

Steve Washington, chief of staff to Board President Rufus Williams, declined to make trustees available for interviews, and trustees contacted by Catalyst did not return calls. (Williams did sit for an interview for this month’s cover story.)

Mayoral appointees have their share of political ties to City Hall. Former member Sharon Gist Gilliam was tapped to run the beleaguered Chicago Housing Authority. Avis LaVelle ran the mayor’s re-election campaign in 1999. Former Board President Michael Scott and current trustee Roxanne Ward both earned political stripes in the city’s Park District.

And most are connected to the business-oriented school reform community, particularly the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Chicago Public Education Fund and the Renaissance Schools Fund.

Still, Moore of Designs for Change says the Board needs to be more responsive to community needs.

After hearing public testimony, the board generally meets behind closed doors in executive session, and then they come out and approve most issues on the agenda, Moore explains. That suggests that the Board “may be discussing issues in executive session that, by law, they should be discussing in public,” he contends.

Moore concedes that the Board structure predating Daley’s takeover had problems, especially its “unwieldy” selection process. But community groups had access.

Today, he says, “the only opportunity to have any input comes in those two-minute statements, and by that time, the Board has decided what it’s going to do.”

And nearly every time, it’s unanimous.

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or e-mail myers@catalyst-chicago.org.