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The appointed Chicago Board of Education members met in 2019. Starting in 2025, the board will begin a transition to an elected board under a bill passed by the Illinois House and Senate.

Manuel Martinez

A Bill Giving Chicago An Elected School Board Is Headed For The Governor’s Desk

In a major breakthrough after years of failed attempts, state lawmakers passed an elected school board bill Wednesday that could fundamentally change how the nation’s third largest school system operates.

The Illinois House on Wednesday evening passed a compromise bill, already approved by the Senate, in a 70 to 41 vote. Under the bill, Chicago would have a partly elected, partly appointed board in 2025 and a fully elected board in 2027.

The vote was a major defeat for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who strongly opposed the bill.

As she made her closing argument for the bill, Delia Ramirez (D-Chicago), the House sponsor, urged lawmakers to take “final action.”

“I invite you to be on the right side of history, by voting … and finally, giving my niece and my nephew and all of us who wished in our public schools, when we were there, [that we had] an elected representative school board that is accountable to us,” she said.

If signed by the governor, the bill would represent a rejection of nearly 30 years of mayoral control of the school district and a major shift in how the school has been run.

For decades, the board of education has been appointed by the mayor and almost universally voted in lockstep with the wishes of the mayor and the CPS CEO. Supporters of an appointed board say this has led to academic improvements, while critics lambasted the appointed board as undemocratic and a vehicle for policies they say have harmed communities, including the shuttering of 50 schools and the opening of dozens of charter schools. Those actions spurred the grassroots demand for an elected school board.

Ramirez promised subsequent bills to clean up some outstanding issues, including campaign finance rules. These outstanding issues were raised by opponents of the bill, who said their absence meant it wasn’t ready for passage. But Ramirez said the parents who worked for the elected board for more than a decade deserved this assurance that the city would move to an elected school board.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently reiterated his support for an elected board. But before committing to signing this year’s bill, Pritzker said he is waiting to see whether the House would change it. The bill will not immediately go to his desk because Ramirez placed a temporary procedural hold on it. Ramirez said that was done to protect the bill from opponents and to give Lightfoot an opportunity to negotiate some outstanding issues.

Earlier this week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reiterated her criticisms of the bill, including its lack of campaign finance restrictions and that it excludes non-citizens from participating, and vowed to continue fighting it.

What lies ahead

The bill’s most immediate impact is that it prevents the school district from closing or consolidating any schools until 2025. The moratorium wouldn’t kick in until the bill goes into effect, which won’t be for a year. However, on Wednesday night Ramirez said she wants to advance a follow-up bill as soon as possible that would make the moratorium go into effect immediately.

Lightfoot is also in the process of looking for a new CEO for the school district. This moratorium would hamper that leader’s ability to do any major restructuring, even as the school district has some small schools with dwindling enrollment and some poor-performing charter schools.

It also means that the next CEO will only have a few years before he or she becomes beholden to more than just the mayor. In 2015, 10 members will be elected. While the mayor retains the right to appoint the other 10 members and the president, she must get the “advice and consent” of the City Council.

Currently, the city council has no role in picking school board members.

Lightfoot originally said she thought the prospect of an elected school board would hamper her ability to find good candidates for CEO. But on Monday she backed away from that predication.

Another potential fight ahead is the drawing up of the districts that each elected member will represent. The authors of the bill envision each district representing 135,000 people who live in neighborhoods connected to each other.

But, as the mayor pointed out on Monday, this could result in areas with white, middle class families having more districts as they crowd into some neighborhoods and gentrify others that have traditionally been home to Black and Latino families. Most CPS students are Black or Latino.

Ramirez acknowledged this could be a problem and said it is something that will have to be monitored. She noted, though, that residents of neighborhoods currently have no say about who is on the board.

Before the House passed the bill, Ramirez also promised to work on additional legislation to make it clear that board members are not to be paid and to put limits on campaign spending for elected members. Those were additional concerns raised by Lightfoot.

Ramirez also would like to see a bill passed that would allow undocumented residents to run for and vote for school board members across the state. The mayor and others wanted this provision in the current bill, but proponents worried that it would doom the bill.

It is unclear when these bills might surface for consideration by lawmakers.

Ramirez also said she would work with the city to address what has recently become one of the major objections to the bill. Opponents note that the city supplements the school district’s budget by paying as much as $500 million in non-teacher pension costs and that it could stop that practice.

Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett said no other city helps out their school district as much. She warned on Wednesday that future mayors might be less willing to do so if they are not accountable for the school district. The school district’s operating budget is about $8 billion annually.

Several lawmakers have questioned the premise that the city officials would pull back support from the school district simply because they don’t control it.

However, the bill that passed Wednesday creates a committee to study the issue of how CPS and the city’s finances are intertwined.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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