Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Who Will Rahm Pick To Replace Penny Pritzker on the CPS Board?

Why is this taking so long? And should it even be an appointed position, anyway?

photo: Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune 

Pritzker in February.

Penny Pritzker resigned from the CPS board last March for unstated but, to me anyway, obvious reasons—raucous school closing hearings leeching into her U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for commerce secretary would not make a pretty picture. And as it turned out, the school hearings preceded her friendly confirmation hearing by only one day. School closings made no headlines at her confirmation hearing last Thursday—the topics that drew the most pointed, albeit respectful questions—were on the subject of her family’s off-shore investments and the failure of a family-owned bank that traded in sub-prime mortgages.

When I interviewed CTU President Karen Lewis on the day last March that Pritzker quit the board, Lewis bid her good riddance and then we discussed the first thing on both our minds: Who would Rahm name to replace her? It seemed a matter of urgency, because a six-member board is like an eight-member Supreme Court: There’s no tiebreaker vote.

It turned out that an even-numbered board made no difference in Wednesday’s decision at CPS headquarters to close 50 schools because the board rubberstamped the mayor’s plan en masse, en block in about 90 seconds with one exception—the decision to close Von Humboldt Elementary on a four to two vote. The vote to change the lives, at least near term, of thousands of children and their families came so fast that spectators were left baffled by what had occurred and outraged that board members didn’t take the time to vote on each school individually by name.

More than two months later, the Mayor has still not named the seventh member, which likely reflected his confidence that the six people he has appointed since taking office two years ago would vote his way. (The school board members all qualify, some more than others, as establishment choices: businessman David Vitale, attorney Jesse Ruiz, professor Carlos Azcoitia, former Northwestern University president Henry Bienen, teacher/principal/businesswoman Mahalia Hines, attorney/businesswoman/Chicago Urban League president Andrea Zopp.) 

It’s possible a law suit challenging the closing on the grounds of discrimination based on disability—unfair impact on special education students– and race—nearly all students affected are black—will derail the closings. More likely, the decision of the one-short board will stand.

I emailed the mayor via his press secretary last Thursday, a day after hearings, to ask when he’d be appointing the seventh member and who was on his shortlist. “The Mayor expects to name Penny’s replacement in the coming weeks,” Tarrah Cooper responded, “at which point we will share the name.”

Karen Lewis told me during our aforementioned interview that if the mayor were to ask her whom to appoint, which she assured me he wouldn’t, she’d suggest, “Jitu Brown, an education organizer from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. He should be on the school board. I would like to see somebody other than big business types. Or Dwayne Truss from the Austin neighborhood [and vice chair of the Austin Community Action Council]; someone with neighborhood ties. But really, it doesn’t matter who’s on that board. People who sit in those seats vote the same way all the time … [The board] is ineffective and harmful.”

For good measure she noted that none of the six current Emanuel appointees measures up: “Nobody on the board is doing a good job … It’s too political.”

Forty-seventh ward alderman Ameya Pawar, who had noted in the days before the hearing that Chicago would be setting a record for the number of schools closed and “this is not a record we want to set,” also offered his two picks for the board:

Wendy Katten, “a co-founder of Raise Your Hand Coalition, a CPS parent, and someone who believes in public education. Just as important, she believes in a public school system that is equitable and just and available to all communities.”

Also, Amy Rynell, “Director of Social Impact - Heartland Alliance.”

Last week’s contentious and emotional reaction to the shuttering of 50 schools has also brought new energy to the move to transform the board to an elected body. Ald Pawar told me via email that “CPS parents would benefit from an elected school board. I have to admit, I didn’t have this opinion a year ago. I thought a hybrid (elected/appointed) board would be a better option. I now believe in an elected board because government should reflect the people it represents. For some reason wealth is equated with competence. My chief of staff and I were talking and she made this great point: we appoint people to government bodies who believe government is the problem when in fact it is government that makes this country so great.”

Stephanie Farmer, an assistant professor in Roosevelt University’s department of sociology, told me via email that “appointed board members are illegitimate. The only justification for having an unelected board would be the need for technical expertise. And yet the board is laden with economic elites and very few education experts … To be transparent and accountable to the communities that it serves, a school board should be elected and not hand picked by the mayor.”

When I called Pauline Lipman, professor in the department of educational policy studies, who has written and researched widely on the subject of “race and class inequality in urban education,” she told me that asking whom Rahm will appoint to the open seat is the wrong question. “We need an elected school board.” To get one, she explained, would require the state legislature to pass an amendment to the existing school reform act. The “arrogant and authoritarian” block vote at last Wednesday’s hearings, she says, probably did a lot to advance the cause of an elected board, certainly in the African American community. “I think it’s more imaginable all the time.”

Stephanie Farmer singled out Penny Pritzer as emblematic of what’s wrong with the mayor’s approach: He thought it appropriate to appoint “a billionaire heiress [who is] neither an educational expert nor a parent with children in the CPS system. She has consistently voted to turn Chicago’s public education system into a for-profit system by charter school operators and their investors who are not accountable or transparent to the public, but dependent upon public tax dollars for their operations.”

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