PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday May 11th, 2016, 3:13pm

Education Activists Pressure Senate President To Advance Chicago Elected School Board Bill (VIDEO)

Parents and education activists protested Wednesday morning outside Illinois Senate President John Cullerton's office, urging him to advance pending legislation for an elected Chicago school board. 

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is coming under fire from Chicago elected school board supporters, who protested outside the lawmaker's office in the city Wednesday morning.

Public school parents and education activists are upset because Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago, has not yet moved legislation in the Senate that would create an elected school board in the city.

Cullerton is the chief Senate sponsor of the bill in question, HB 557, which passed the Illinois House by a 110-4 vote in early March. Since then, the bill has been pending in the Senate Assignments Committee.

Outside Cullerton's office, located at 1726 W. Belmont Ave., activists held signs reading, "Do the right thing, John!" They also chanted, "Call the bill!"

"As Senate President, he has the power to decide what gets called and what doesn't," said Erica Hade, a Chicago Public Schools parent who lives in Cullerton's 6th Senate District. "He's making a choice to hold this up. And he can make a different choice. He can choose to listen to his constituents, listen to voters all over this city, and give Chicago parents the same right as every other parent in this state."

The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature -- which approved the 1995 law that gave Chicago's mayor full authority over the school district and board appointments -- must ultimately change the rules.

HB 557, spearheaded by state Rep. Rob Martwick (D-Chicago) in the House, would create a 21-member elected Chicago school board starting in 2018. Under the measure, Chicago public schools would be divided into 20 districts. There would be one board chair that runs citywide, adding up to a total of 21 board members.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposes switching to an elected school board. He has voiced concerns that the election of school board members could bring more politics into the school system. The mayor also maintains that the city has an elected school board in the form of Local School Councils. Gov. Bruce Rauner has also stated his opposition to elected Chicago school board proposals.

In the February 2015 municipal election, voters in 37 Chicago wards weighed in on a non-binding ballot question that asked whether Chicago should have an elected school board. Voters enthusiastically supported the idea of an elected school board, with 89 percent answering in the affirmative.

Protesters accused Cullerton of "blocking" the bill for political purposes.

"He's choosing to side with the mayor over his constituents and the people of Chicago," said Erica Clark with Parents 4 Teachers. "That's why we're here -- to let him know that he has got to be accountable to the people of Chicago, not to the person sitting on the fifth floor of City Hall."

The activists also raised questions about Cullerton's chief sponsorship of the bill. 

"Cullerton jumped up to grab this as a sponsor. He's not a supporter of this legislation," Jaribu Lee with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization claimed. "But he grabbed to sponsor this when we have a lot of champions in the Senate that wanted to be the chief sponsor. So that's why we believe wholeheartedly that this was a political move to be able to eliminate and try to kill this bill."

Elected school board supporters believe the bill would pass if it went before the full Senate. Protesters say they won't stop demonstrating until the Senate bill advances.

"We're gonna have a presence outside this office every day until he gets the message and does the right thing and calls this bill and supports it on the floor of the Senate," Clark said. 

Here's more from Clark, plus comments from CPS parent Jeff Jenkins:

In repsonse to the protest, Cullerton spokesman John Patterson told Progress Illinois that there are presently more pressing issues to address regarding the school system. 

"At a time when Governor Rauner wants to slash more than $70 million from Chicago's schools, the top priority is reversing those cuts and getting those schools the resources they need," he said. "On Tuesday, the Illinois Senate approved a plan to do that. It now goes to the Illinois House. We would hope parents and other advocates would encourage House members to support this crucial legislation in the coming weeks to avoid cuts and ensure Chicago's schools can open next year."

Many of the elected school board supporters, meanwhile, are involved with the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a Chicago coalition of community and labor groups advocating for education justice reforms. 

GEM wants to file a lawsuit in an effort to win an elected Chicago Board of Education. The group, which claims an unelected Chicago school board is taxation without representation and a violation of voting rights, is currently raising $20,000 to file the suit. Thus far, the group has raised more than $2,600 via the Rally.org fundraising platform. 

"We believe that treating Chicagoans differently is not just unfair, it's unconstitutional and unlawful," the group said on its fundraising page. "The unelected school board denies us voting rights, and we are being taxed billions without representation."

The post adds: "When we can raise $20,000 to fund the litigation, we can file a lawsuit to challenge this unjust discrimination against Chicago's voters."

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