Friday, October 17, 2014

These obscure elected offices which voters reflexively ignore are important, too: Observations prompted by the Waukegan school strike

My sister Jodee is not shown in this picture of striking Waukegan teachers that I lifted this morning from the Chicago Tribune website, but she is a teacher at Waukegan High School and has been on strike now, along with her colleagues, for a couple of weeks. From what I can salvage from the flotsam and jetsam of my Facebook newsfeed, the teachers are encouraged by the support they've received from their students and their students' parents.

It is not at all surprising that a deep dissatisfaction with the Waukegan School Board has also emerged as a theme in the newsfeed Mr. Zuckerberg's Facebook algorithm sends my way on account of my sister walking the picket line. But I did not expect to see a number of posts fuming about the fact that the Waukegan school board is elected -- and griping that absolutely no education-related credentials of any kind are required in order to run. I saw one post that compared -- irony alert -- what is required to serve on the Waukegan school board (3,000 votes, allegedly) with the supposedly extensive credentials required to serve on the unelected school board in -- I warned you -- Chicago. (No, I can't find, or link to that post. Facebook doesn't work that way.)

The teachers' union in Chicago wants an elected school board to counter the mayor's control of the schools, while -- apparently -- at least some teachers in Waukegan, or their supporters, wish their school board had appointed members with some appreciation of what teachers do and how they do it so that they might be more willing partners in negotiation. (Jodee, you may wish to break this gently to your colleagues: We had a teachers' strike here in Chicago, too, recently, unelected school board and all.)

But -- and here's how I tie this morning's topic back to a recurring theme on this blog -- what I see, in both the Chicago teachers urging an elected school board, and in the Waukegan teachers wishing their board were appointed -- is a misplaced focus on process. Changing the stickers and the paint job on a race car will not necessarily make it go faster; sometimes what is really needed is a different driver.

Regular readers of this blog know that some of our local bar associations advocate fiercely for merit selection of judges (while other bar associations remain strongly opposed). In the not-so-distant past some of the bar associations that favor merit selection gave short shrift to the merits of the many persons running for judge: The lede was always we need merit selection... and only further down the page, where few bothered to read, did the association say whether, in its opinion, Candidates A through Z were, or were not, qualified for judicial office.

That's changed somewhat in recent years, I believe, and for the better. The bar associations, even those that support merit selection over judicial election, are spending a lot more time and effort now getting their evaluations about individual candidates out to the electorate: These bar associations still want different stickers on the car, but they realize that they can't win the race without the right driver -- or improve the quality of the bench without the right candidates.

Of course I realize it is a little late now for the teachers in Waukegan to field their own slate for the school board....

Isn't that funny? There is a belief, particularly among Republicans, that the public employee unions have all but hijacked the Democratic party, and particularly the primary process, so that the unions can effectively dictate terms at contract renewal time. And maybe, in some times and in some places, that has proved true -- not in Waukegan obviously -- but the theory does not explain how, in Illinois generally, for example, or in Chicago, these allegedly staunch public employee union-backers failed to make required pension contributions for so many years. You'd think that would have been a priority for a union-oriented elected official, wouldn't you?

Here's the bottom line, though: Many of us want to change the "system." (To improve it, of course.) But too many of us fail to also work with, and study, and understand, the system we have. School boards, library boards, water reclamation districts -- all of these "minor" or "obscure" public bodies spend tax dollars just like the City, county or state. All of these bodies, and of course the courts too, have an enormous influence on our lives and our pocketbooks. We have a right -- and it is surely in our best interests -- to pay attention to all public bodies, no matter how obscure or seemingly unimportant. Who are we allowing behind the wheel of those race cars? And, yet, voter turnout in November will be... what? 25%? 30%?

The people I really feel sorry for in the Waukegan strike are the senior athletes. The football players, and soccer players, and volleyball players -- anyone in a fall sport. These kids are really being punished for the strike. They can't play. They can't practice. And -- most of 'em anyway -- can never get these days back: There won't be another season.

I've watched my own sons play football and baseball and, whether that last season comes in high school or college, I can't help but ache with them as that time in their lives comes to an end. I've watched kids -- "kids" who can bench press hundreds of pounds, "kids" who could break me in half if they'd a mind to -- dissolve in unashamed tears after their last game as the finality overwhelms them. It's even tougher for the kids who get injured during their final seasons, but they can at least lean on crutches on the sideline or along the bench and share those last fleeting moments with their teammates. But even the sidelines have been taken away from the senior athletes in Waukegan.

No comments: