Paul Vallas, the former head of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district, says the city should have a "hybrid" school board with both voter-elected and mayor-appointed members.
He spoke Wednesday night at an elected school board forum hosted by state Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) at the Athenaeum Theatre on Chicago's North Side.
Other panelists at the discussion included Wendy Katten with the Raise Your Hand coalition and Eric "Rico" Gutstein, a professor in curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"I believe that you do need elected members of the school board," said Vallas, who was the CPS CEO from 1995 to 2001 and also ran schools in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Connecticut. "I believe that you do need transparency."
Vallas said there should be an equal number of voter-elected and mayor-appointed members on the Chicago Board of Education.
"Whether you like it or not, the mayor has to have skin in the game," he said.
With a hybrid board, "the mayor continues to have a stake in the board, but it puts members on the board who are not necessarily beholden to one individual and increases transparency," Vallas said.
Gutstein said elected school board proponents in Chicago have been pushing for a fully elected board, not a hybrid system.
"We should have no illusions whatsoever that with a fully elected board, like 99 percent of school boards in this whole country, that this mayor would not have 'skin in the game,'" he said. "Everything about the Chicago school system is linked to what happens in this city. You cannot divorce it. So what happens in the schools is part of the mayor's work, whether or not he has the power to appoint three members of a hybrid board or not."
The debate over an elected school board has heated up in light of former CPS CEO Byrd-Bennett pleading guilty last month to her role in a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme.
Byrd-Bennett allegedly steered $23 million in no-bid contracts to her former employers, the SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, in exchange for $2.3 million in kickbacks. She was indicted on 20 counts of mail and wire fraud, but pleaded guilty in federal court to one wire fraud charge as part of her plea agreement with prosecutors.
At the center of the corruption scandal was the no-bid $20.5 million SUPES contract, which the Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved in 2013, one month after it voted to close 50 underutilized neighborhood schools.
Katten, who began her remarks by acknowledging that an elected school board is not a cure-all solution to public education problems, said the school board "is clearly a rubber stamp" without a "system of checks and balances." She said an elected school board would help bring a more transparent and accountable school governance system to CPS.
"There's really no way to have a say in school policy right now," she added.
Katten noted that Raise Your Hand members had voiced concerns at school board meetings about the SUPES contract.
"We've testified against other contracts" as well "and nobody cares," she said.
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.
Williams is a cosponsor of state legislation, HB 4268, that would require the election of Chicago school board members. The bill has 52 cosponsors in the House.
If the measure were to clear both the House and Senate, it would need approval from Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has stated his opposition to elected Chicago school board proposals.
"I don't really know how (the legislation) will play out, but I do see a lot of momentum in the House, and I think that's good. It means a lot of people are talking about it," Williams said.
Vallas, meanwhile, also said he supports the idea of establishing a financial oversight entity for the Chicago Board of Education.
"There needs to be financial oversight, and whether it's an elected school board or appointed school board, there needs to be independent financial oversight of that board," he said.
Audience member Amy Rosenwasser had a different opinion on the matter. A financial oversight entity "would be a whole new bureaucracy for CPS, which loves bureaucracies," she said.
"There are plenty of people pointing out that a pension holiday is not a good idea, including the pension board and, I believe, the union. So why we need another bureaucracy of highly paid people who are morons is kind of beyond me," she told the panelists.
Rosenwasser, a CPS teacher and North Side resident, was also skeptical of the hybrid school board idea.
"If a hybrid system of an elected school board is such a good idea, I'm not really clear why so many people aren't out in Wilmette and Winnetka and Glencoe saying we need a hybrid elected school board," she said.