In Praise of Public Service

To my friends who are disappointed in local and state legislatures behaving poorly: go and be the change.

After I wrapped up my last class, several students did the obligatory linger and chat.  I had a young man ask me “who should I vote for?”  I told him that voting was not as important as getting up, going out, and becoming part of the process.  One of the students had taken the option of attending and observing a local government meeting.  (I used a choose-your-own-adventure assignment.  The local council option was rarely used but almost always enjoyed.)  He was already networking and motivated to get involved in local politics.

I caught the same bug two decades ago.  Public service is one of the best choices I have made.

I currently serve on the Horace Greeley Elementary School Local School Council.  For those not in Chicago, imagine a school board for an pre-K through eighth grade elementary school.  We approve budgets and oversee the principal who manages the day to day operations of the school.  The Horace Greeley Elementary School community elected me for a third term last April.  I am thrilled and honored to serve one of the best elementary schools.  Our faculty and staff serve a challenging population with a take-no-prisoners approach — and the students produce breathtaking results.  It is truly a special place.  Greeley restored the faith I had lost while teaching in Chicago Public Schools.

The reelection occurred at the same time the school entered a transition period.  Our long-term principal is moving on to bigger challenges; our loss is their gain.  That vacancy has filled the last couple weeks of our Council’s life.  Considering an estimated cut around $1 million (about 30% of our annual budget), the school needs a principal to hit the ground running.  Greeley has been blessed with an overwhelming number of qualified job candidates.  As a Council we labored to sort the “best” options from the good and better options.

When we held our candidate forum, some parents protested.  They felt that they were excluded from the process and favored an internal promotion.  I have attended and organized several protests in my life; it was a unique feeling to be on the other side of the table.  I understand both parts of the complaints.  Due to confidentiality rules, the interview process is by nature a less-open process.  Our meetings are always public, but they are rarely attended.  I agree that the alternatives that the parents proposed could be excellent principals.  Tempers boiled at the meeting, and some hurtful things were said by the protesters.  Some of the insults were salty, but nothing directed towards me was worse than I had heard from ill tempered teenagers.  I felt bad for my colleagues, and I remembered why I decided to stick with local politics: some people can say and do hurtful things.

Even at its worst, public service was worthwhile.  Being part of the growth of Greeley – the attainment of 1+ status (the highest rating CPS provides to schools), the development of a cutting-edge bilingual gifted program, the management of doing more with less during the austere budgets the past several years – has been an honor.  I recognize that the real work happens with the students, parents, teachers, support staff, and school administrators.  That said, if I can be a positive to that cause, then public service is worthwhile.

About a decade ago, I was in the middle of a municipal fight over parkland, commercial development, and campaign ethics.  Looking back, we never had a chance to get what we wanted.  We lost two of those issues, but I had the chance to write, campaign for, and pass ethics legislation.  I can look up the bill I wrote and point to something real that I helped accomplish.  It feels great knowing that even though we lost a war, we laid the groundwork for the next group to have a fighting chance.  In the ever worsening budget situation in Illinois, I look forward to looking back and finding the wins at Greeley.

As I told the folks after my last class, I was given a limited skill set.  I have tried to capitalize on what potential I was given.  Most people are naturally better at politics, than I am; the only reason why I rack up wins is because I get up, go out, show up, participate, and am part of the process.   I have learned that there are no permanent allies and no permanent enemies.  I have learned to get along with everyone.  I have learned that more important half of politics (and life) is showing up.

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