Yes, that’s a play on The Chicago Way and its reference to machine politics, so let me start by saying I am not accusing anyone of violating any laws. I am not a lawyer; on the other hand, I am quite sure that District 214 can afford highly competent lawyers who ensure that they and the Board stay within the bounds of what’s legal.
I had also hoped to leave my prior post as my “last word” before the election; but the issues I’ll list below nag at me and won’t let me go because I am increasingly troubled with the way this election is playing out, and the way the Board operates. It might be legal, but it goes against the spirit of what it means to be a democracy in a local government.
Allow me to recount a series of events — things that go well beyond the personal attacks on me by random people on social media and have to do with the school board and administration themselves.
The school board meeting
The school board/administration/school staff denies any role in the attacks on me, personally, at the March board meeting, and claims the event was wholly student-organized and their praise for the students was simply for them speaking in public about an issue they cared about.
However, when students spoke up against the school closing in August and September, the board cut their speaking time down to two minutes due to the number of speakers; students in March were given the full 3 minutes despite their numbers. Students in August/September were not afforded any recognition or praise by the board for their willingness to speak out in public. What’s more, students mentioned in their speeches that it was their teachers who brought my writing to their attention.
The union-sponsored postcard.
Local 1211, which represents teachers from districts 211 and 214, sent out a postcard with the two districts’ logos and the statement “people you can trust,” with their endorsements listed. Only in small print on the other side was the initialism for the union listed, meaning that the average recipient would be likely to believe this was district-sponsored.
When the Daily Herald reported on it, District 211 clearly stated that they did not endorse candidates; District 214’s response? “No comment.” When a parent likewise reached out to the Superintendent and Board President, the response was likewise, “we have forwarded the matter to our lawyer.”
The April 1st e-mail.
Yes, on April 1st, within a “Superintendent’s Update” to parents with little substance to it, the Superintendent said,
“Our Board of Education continues to provide strong financial oversight on our District’s finances, acting as strong stewards of taxpayer dollars. We continually have balanced budgets and have not had a referendum in over 40 years.”
This praise of the board is not appropriate for the Thursday before an election, in a circumstance in which all members of the existing board operate as a “Slate,” taking credit for all that is good about the district, and have for the past 14 years.
The suspicious school reopening timing
Yes, schools are re-opening the day before Election Day, and the incumbent board members are quite happy to take credit for this.
Union campaign contributions
In late March, both the ESPA and the Custodial unions donated $1,000 to the Supporters of District 214. Are these huge sums of money? Maybe, maybe not. But at this very moment, the District is in the process of negotiating a new contract with the ESPA, and the receipt of these funds has created a conflict of interest and diminished the degree to which the Board members negotiating the contract can fairly represent the residents/taxpayers of the district, if they feel beholden to the unions for their donations.
The Transeo conflict-of-interest
Yes, parents discovered back in the fall that the Superintendent has his own company, Transeo, which sells its services to the district. The district justifies this contract because the services are “free,” but it nonetheless creates a conflict of interest because Transeo is used to track service hours, internships, and other activities in support of the “career pathways,” thus compromising Schuler’s ability to impartially balance the pathways push with other important district needs such as support for struggling students or for the fine arts.
And, as I discovered when doing my own research, there is no public record, in any meeting minutes, of board discussion of this arrangement. Any discussion could have only happened behind closed doors, which is no real accountability at all.
The candidates have now insisted in public forums that they are quite active in oversight of the Superintendent and his decisions — but that this oversight occurs behind the scenes.
Here’s what Lenny Walker said at the Daily Herald candidate “group interview” back in March, in response to a question on whether the board truly exercises oversight, when public votes are 7 – 0 (my transcription of the recording):
“I think we hold them accountable. I think behind the scenes, you know, there’s three meetings before our board meeting, right? There’s a planning meeting, that’s two weeks out, there’s, let’s say, the first meeting of the month would set the table for the second meeting, for the votes that we take, and you know that there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes, you know, because of the Open Meetings Act, you can’t get all of us together to talk outside of a board meeting, so there are phone calls.”
How it is that they think this is a point in their favor, is beyond me.
The Supporters of District 214 candidates explain that the Slate is simply a way to share campaign expenses. In reality, the Slate operates to keep discussion of district actions behind closed doors, and to come to a consensus before voting in public. Individual school board members do not have their own agendas or issues of particular concern about which they seek to take action; in fact, parents report that attempts to reach out to individual board members are futile, all responses to the community come from Board President Petro, and all other members wholly defer to him.
What’s more, the fact that the Supporters slate controls each and every seat on the school board and hand-picks successor members when a Supporters member decides not to run again, is fundamentally anti-democratic. I am personally pounding the pavement trying to get the word out, as are my supporters and the “Parents for Kids” PAC supporters, but we all know it is an uphill battle. At this point, other elected officials have closed ranks, endorsing the Supporters slate without reaching out in any way to the challenger candidates.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the challengers, the seemingly unchallengeable control of the board by the Supporters slate ought to give everyone pause for concern.
The bottom line
I want to repeat again that I am not claiming that the school district or the Supporters candidates violated any laws. And any one of these incidents might be individually reasonable. But they add up. And regardless of the outcome of the election on Tuesday, I hope readers will consider the need for reform.