Chicago School Reform Sparks Political Battle : Education: The mayor’s rejection of a citizen panel’s nominees angers minority activists. Others want the new superintendent to be fired.


Chicago’s highly touted plan to reform the school system that has been called the worst in the nation was thrown into turmoil Friday when Mayor Richard M. Daley rejected 38 of 45 school board nominees presented by a citizens’ nominating committee.

Amid charges of racial insensitivity and political gamesmanship, Daley and a coalition of mostly black activists are jousting over the makeup of the new board that is supposed to guide the school system during its new era of reform.

Meanwhile, some black activists, alleging lack of leadership, are calling for the firing of the new school superintendent, Ted Kimbrough, who previously headed the school system in Compton, Calif.

On the school board issue, the activists charge that Daley is trying to delay naming a new board because he fears the state-mandated process for naming members might create a body that is politically unfriendly to him.


They vowed Friday, after Daley rejected 38 nominees for the 15-member board, that they would hold demonstrations and seek federal intervention to keep a Daley-appointed interim board from making decisions after May 15, the day the law says the new board is supposed to take over.

“He is in violation of the spirit of school reform and the school reform law,” said Robert Starks, a leader of the protests. “He cares nothing about the children of the city of Chicago.”

Daley on Friday appointed seven members of the new permanent school board and told reporters it will likely take “a few months” for him to complete his selections. The delay ensures that his handpicked interim board will maintain control of the school system during the summer while important contract negotiations and budgetary decisions are made.

“I’ve been under intense pressure to rush the school board selection process, and I have resisted that pressure,” Daley said. “These appointments are among the most important decisions I will make as mayor.”

Daley wouldn’t say why he rejected 38 of the 45 names submitted to him by the nominating commission. “I’m not going to make a comment about the others,” he said. “The ultimate decision rests with me.”

Some members of the commission were harsh in their criticism of the mayor on Friday. “I think he’s holding the city hostage,” said James Deanes, a commission member. “I think it’s unfair.”

Daley’s opponents vowed Friday to disrupt interim board meetings that take place after May 15 because they will consider the meetings illegal.

The mayor accused his critics--who also have demanded that he appoint at least nine blacks and four Latinos to the board to reflect the school population--of playing politics.

“We have to get beyond the political agendas, the racial agendas of people,” he said.

A group of mostly black and Latino demonstrators chanted and sang outside his office Friday, as they have done repeatedly since last week, when several were arrested after scuffling with police.

Daley asked the nominating commission Friday to submit a new list of names to him, but some members of the commission criticized him because he would not discuss why most of the nominees were rejected or say what qualifications he was looking for.

“It’s difficult for us as a commission to go out and request that new candidates submit their names for consideration” when so many qualified candidates were rejected without explanation, said Mark Allen, a member of the commission.

Daley and his critics differed in their interpretation of whether state law established a definite deadline for a new permanent school board to be in place.

“The law says the interim board will serve until May 15 or until a permanent board is in place,” Daley said. “May 15 is not a deadline.”

Stark contends the mayor was required by law to name his appointments by April 23, and the city council has until May 15 to approve them. His group has requested an opinion from the Illinois attorney general on whether Daley is in violation of the law.

They also asked U.S. Rep. Gus Savage, a Democrat representing Chicago, to request a Justice Department investigation into whether Daley’s handling of the process violates federal civil rights laws.

“When you have a city mayor violating state law with an interim board, the civil rights of 300,000 kids are being violated,” said Vincent Gilbert, a Savage aide. If the city were found in violation of federal civil rights laws, he said, the government could withhold federal funds from the school system.

Daley on Friday also defended Kimbrough, calling him “a fine superintendent.”

Kimbrough, who took office in January, faced opposition from the start because he is an outsider and because his salary--$700,000 over 3 1/2 years--is much higher than that of the previous superintendent.

“I think Supt. Ted Kimbrough should’ve hit the ground running with this plan,” said Deanes, the nominating commission member. Charging that Kimbrough hasn’t done enough in the four months he’s been in office, Deanes said: “If he does not have an educational agenda he should be replaced.”

“I’m not going to defend myself against mere hearsay statements made by someone I don’t know,” Kimbrough said. “I’m a professional. I do my job, and I do my job very well.”