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Mayor Brandon Johnson with Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez at Orr Academy High School earlier this month.

Anthony Vazquez

Mayor Johnson cleans house at CPS as he replaces nearly all board members

Mayor Brandon Johnson is replacing all but one member of the Chicago Board of Education, bringing on advocates with experience in grassroots organizing and nonprofit organizations.

The changes are among the new mayor’s most pivotal decisions to date as he looks to transform education in the city. Johnson spent most of his career in education and with the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped catapult him from political outsider to City Hall.

The new board will have a different feel than in past years, when consultants, lawyers and bankers filled many of the seven seats. Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed more educators and Chicago Public Schools parents than her predecessors, and Johnson is moving further in that direction by appointing several activists to his new board. Only one of his appointees is a lawyer, and she runs a legal aid organization, while another new member works in philanthropy at a bank.

“It’s my honor to bring together such a diverse group of people from community, business, philanthropy and elsewhere to collaborate around a vision for our schools that ensures every student has access to a fully resourced, supportive, and nurturing learning environment,” Johnson said in a statement. “These are CPS parents, just as I am, and education champions dedicated to creating learning environments that support our children in the classroom and beyond.”

The new school board president is Jianan Shi, 33, who has worked since 2019 as the executive director of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education. He is stepping down from that position. The group started in 2010 when the school district was threatening to increase class sizes. Shi, a Boston native, taught for three years at Solorio High School in Gage Park before leading the group.

Shi said his appointment is an “honor, privilege and responsibility that I do not take lightly,” and he’ll draw on his experiences as a teacher, organizer and formerly undocumented immigrant to address the system’s shortcomings.

“We have the tremendous responsibility to invest in special education, empower [Local School Councils], and create a family agenda that centers those most impacted,” Shi said in a statement. “By harnessing authentic engagement, expanding wrap-around initiatives like sustainable community schools, and investing in more programs like [career and technical education], we can create a district that works for everyone. We will be advocates for more funding at every level and set up the future 21-seat [elected] school board for success.”

Elizabeth Todd-Breland will serve as the board’s vice president. The only carryover from Lightfoot’s era, Todd-Breland is a University of Illinois Chicago history professor who has served as one of the board’s most progressive voices for the past four years.

New mayors have traditionally named their own school boards, but it wasn’t clear Johnson would make wholesale changes. The only member who had announced he was leaving was Miguel del Valle, the former state senator who served as Lightfoot’s board president. The five other members had been relatively recent additions and included former Ald. Michael Scott Jr. and Far South Side parent activist Joyce Chapman.

The new board will take its seats this month and be the last fully appointed one for CPS before an expanded, partially elected 21-member board takes over in 2025.

Going from agitators to insiders

Much like Johnson, most of these new board members will go from outsiders pushing for change to decision-makers who will immediately face consequential choices as the school system enters a new era.

Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, both socially and academically, is ongoing and is expected to continue for years to come. And while this board likely won’t put much stock in test scores, the public will undoubtedly hold it accountable for making academic progress, especially after state test scores plummeted during the pandemic.

But officials will have fewer resources to draw on as federal pandemic relief funding runs out in 2025, exposing an estimated $628 million budget deficit.

CPS faces this financial cliff in part because of its use of COVID-19 funding for support services and staff, including counselors and interventionists to help with pandemic recovery — all spending that activists, including some of the new board members, pushed for. CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has said schools have long been understaffed and the infusion of dollars has helped staff the district in a way it has long needed.

But when pandemic money runs out, CPS’ structural deficit will reemerge. It will look to the state to make up the gap, but that’s far from guaranteed. By the state’s own estimates, the district is short about $1.4 billion in annual funding required to provide students an “adequate” education. If the state doesn’t come through in a major way, the board will have tough decisions to make to balance the budget.

The board also faces mounting pressure to address its aging buildings. Many are in bad shape after years of deferred maintenance and have potentially dangerous environmental problems, such as lead paint and pipes. Students, community members and teachers have started a push for the district to invest in green schools. Martinez says it’ll cost more than $10 billion to fully modernize the schools, and a 10-year master facilities plan laying that out is due by the end of the year.

And while an influx of migrants offers some promise of enrollment stabilization, the school district has been losing students for two decades. It now has dozens of schools that are so small they struggle to run efficiently under CPS’ funding model or offer a robust educational program. A moratorium on school closings will lift in 2025, just as some of the board becomes elected.

A progressive to-do list

Aside from trying to boost CPS funding, progressive education activists have a long to-do list. This includes rethinking CPS’ system of charter, magnet and selective enrollment schools; revamping its funding formula, which experts have said drains resources from schools in Black communities; reversing the privatization of custodial and other facilities service; and removing police from schools.

Along with Shi, special education parent activist Mary Fahey Hughes is joining the board. She has worked for Raise Your Hand and became an active advocate as a parent of children with disabilities as part of the 19th Ward Parents for Special Education.

Michelle Morales, another new board member, is the president of Woods Fund Chicago, a grantmaking foundation that describes itself as committed to promoting social, economic and racial justice. Prior to that she spent years leading the Mikva Challenge, where Chicago teenagers get involved with policy issues and serve as election judges.

The other new members are: Mariela Estrada, who worked for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and is now the director of community engagement for United Way of Metro Chicago; Tanya Woods, a lawyer who runs Westside Justice Center, a legal aid organization; and Rudy Lozano Jr., the executive director of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and leader of The Fellowship Initiative in Chicago, which works with low-income Black and Latino young men. Lozano is the son of the prominent labor activist and community organizer.

The housecleaning at the Board of Education couldn’t come fast enough to satisfy Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Johnson’s handpicked chair of the City Council’s Education Committee. She didn’t mince words about the outgoing board members.

“What did they do in the interest of young people?” Taylor asked. “They didn’t do any of the things they were supposed to do. Why would we keep them?”

“To not listen to parents and the community of folks telling you what they need and what they don’t need ... It’s disgraceful,” Taylor said.

She predicted the new board would “advocate on behalf of what Chicago Public Schools are supposed to do, which is put children first.”

Taylor said she’d like to see changes aimed at better transparency, noting that the Board of Education typically holds its meetings the same day as City Council meetings, preventing her — as the Education Committee chair — and her colleagues from testifying. The board announced earlier this spring that more meetings would be held in the evenings and in communities as one of a few accessibility initiatives spearheaded by Todd-Breland.

Taylor also said she hopes one of the new board’s first decisions will be to nix plans to build a $150 million high school on the Near South Side, especially when nearby historically Black schools could be harmed.

“We can’t afford it. We already do not fund everyday public schools,” Taylor said. “But then, you all turn around to build a new school only to go back and close schools that you say are under-utilized and under-performing when you did nothing to support them or make sure they become places of excitement for young people? We’ve got to take some ownership of the decisions that people make.”

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

Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times. Fran Spielman is the City Hall reporter for the Sun-Times.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Mariela Estrada previously worked. She was employed by the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

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