EAST CHICAGO | Few elections in many years have energized the community quite like this season's first popular vote for candidates to lead the city's expansive school system.
Long dictated by mayoral appointment, a decades-long effort to bring the School Board to popular accountability finally succeeded last year when state lawmakers approved establishing a nine-member board to be chosen by residents.
Supporters envision the School City of East Chicago — with its $70 million-plus budget — no longer a source of patronage jobs and lucrative vending opportunities for political cronies, instead concentrating on education.
Six members of the new panel will be elected by City Council district, with an additional three at-large members.
"There's much to be done," said Fernando Trevino, this century's longest-serving board member with 16 years on the panel, the past four as board president, when his final appointment expired in June.
Shrinking budgets, new state requirements for scoring schools and teacher evaluations, challenges presented by charter schools and vouchers, and changes in the collective bargaining rights of teachers all mean some tough decisions will have to be made, Trevino said.
Now reduced to a three-member "caretaker" panel in anticipation of this election's victors taking office in January, the remaining trustees must demonstrate to voters — and not just the mayor — that they are worthy of their positions just like every other candidate.
The 24 hopefuls for the new School Board seats have spent he past months pitching at more than a dozen forums, sending direct-mail fliers, placing prerecorded telephone calls and walking door-to-door in a good old-fashioned canvas.
Nearly all are the products of East Chicago public schools, most have children or grandchildren currently attending city public schools, and many have work experience in the East Chicago or neighboring city public school systems.