THE BLOG
01/08/2015 04:35 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Chicago Needs Democracy

In Chicago, we live in a Tale of Two Cities. While downtown corporations see record profits, low-income neighborhoods of color see school and clinic closings, violence, home foreclosures and unemployment. With municipal elections less than two months away and $10 million in his campaign fund, Mayor Emanuel is struggling to reform his public image and convince voters that he is not the 'Mayor 1%' who closed 50 public schools in black and brown communities, slashed public worker retirement funds, and handed millions more in taxpayer subsidies to downtown banks and corporations. But communities are organizing to elect a new Mayor, and new Aldermen in City Council, who will choose communities over corporations, support an Elected Representative School Board, and use taxpayer money for neighborhood need, not corporate greed.

Chicagoans need an Elected School Board, because the Mayor's appointed Board is selling our schools off to the banks. Starting in the mid-2000s, Bank of America and other big banks sold Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago risky loans and side bets, promising that the complicated Wall Street deals would save money for our schools and city. After banks crashed the economy in 2008 and were bailed out by taxpayers, however, these deals became highly profitable for banks - and highly toxic for Chicago students and residents. In the last few years, as CPS has closed 50 public schools because of a 'budget crisis', banks have taken $100 million annually from the city of Chicago, including $36 million a year from CPS.

In 2013, when the venture capitalists and finance CEOs on Mayor Emanuel's hand-picked Board of Education decided to close 50 schools, community groups across the city marched to the banks, met with bank executives, and delivered thousands of petition signatures to the Board of Education demanding that these toxic deals be renegotiated, and the money used to keep schools open. Throughout 2014, a series of major investigative articles continued to highlight the issue, and a coalition of unions including AFSCME, SEIU Healthcare and the Chicago Teachers Union demanded that Mayor Emanuel file for arbitration under the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority to seek a refund on money lost to these swap deals.

Mayor Emanuel is unwilling to pressure banks to reverse these deals, however, because he says 'there's a thing called a contract'- even though he seems perfectly content to cut Illinois public worker pension funds that by law may not be 'diminished or impaired'. The school administrators who have the power to speak on behalf of CPS, likewise, have seen no reason to act in the interests of students and communities, because unlike every other school district in the state, our Board of Education is appointed by the Mayor, not elected by the people.

Unsurprisingly, banks want it that way. In 2003, David Vitale left his job as President and CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade to become the Chief Administrative Officer of Chicago Public Schools, where he engineered the toxic swap deals to benefit his banking colleagues. Then, in 2011, Mayor Emanuel appointed Vitale as President of the Board of Education, where he helped close 50 public schools in low-income communities of color, while continuing to pay $36 million a year to the banks.

This isn't the only way that corporate interests are benefiting from our Mayoral-appointed school board. Since Mayor Emanuel appointed venture capitalist Deborah Quazzo to the Board in 2013, education technology companies in which she is invested have received $2.9 million in CPS contracts.

How did we become a Tale of Two Cities, where one Mayor, backed by a mostly passive rubber-stamp City Council, has the power to fill our school board with finance CEOs, close our public schools, hand our taxpayer money over to banks and corporations, cut our retirement income, and leave our neighborhoods in poverty? We need leaders who will put communities before corporations, who will do everything they can to take on the big banks swindling our students.

On February 24, voters have a chance to break the Tale of Two Cities at the ballot box, and Take Back Chicago from the corporate elite, by electing politicians who are determined to build One City for all its residents. After casting their votes for mayor and city council, voters in 37 wards across the city will also face a ballot referendum for an Elected Representative School Board. If we elect leaders with the political will to bring democracy back to our school system, corporate Board members like Vitale and Quazzo might need to find another job - but students throughout the city might finally get the fully-funded public schools they deserve.