Chicago Mayor-Elect Lightfoot’s Vision For City Colleges Remains Unknown | WBEZ
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Chicago Mayor-Elect Lightfoot’s Vision For City Colleges Remains Unknown

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s pledge to “bring in the light” has yet to reveal her vision for the city’s often ignored community college system, the City Colleges of Chicago, which serves close to 80,0000 students annually.

“Lori Lightfoot's plans for the City Colleges remain unknown and that is obviously a concern for our faculty and staff in the City Colleges,” said Tony Johnston, president of the Cook County College Teachers Union, which represents faculty.

Since her election, Lightfoot has not responded to multiple requests for comment from WBEZ about whether she intends to keep the current leadership, Chancellor Juan Salgado and the seven voting members of the Board of Trustees. Currently, those positions are appointed by the mayor. She also did not respond to requests for an interview.

During the crowded mayoral race and in the runoff election, Lightfoot and other mayoral candidates had little to say about their plans for the seven colleges.

The frustration is clear among the adjunct faculty, as well. “I think it’s really unfortunate that there isn’t more of a focus on City Colleges,” said Randy Miller, president of the City Colleges Contingent Labor Organizing Committee, which represents adjunct professors and endorsed Lightfoot for mayor. “We’re one of the largest pathways that students in Chicago, especially low-income students and minority students, have to a successful future. … Not making that a bigger part of the conversation is really unfortunate.”

On her campaign website, Lightfoot’s education policy plan centers almost exclusively on Chicago Public Schools. City Colleges is mentioned as a way to strengthen the K-12 system through partnerships in career and technical education and teacher preparation programs.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Lightfoot was one of five mayoral candidates at a January forum who pledged free tuition for all city students at City Colleges of Chicago.

But so far, there’s been no public discussion of that idea from Lightfoot.

At the monthly City College’s Board of Trustees meeting following last week’s runoff election, Chancellor Salgado acknowledged the election results.

“As an institution where more than 75 percent of our students are people of color and more than half of students are women, we celebrate the historic nature of her victory,” Salgado said.

“Our teams look forward to working with her and will do everything we can to ensure she has a smooth transition.”

Lightfoot has not confirmed whether she plans to keep Salgado or appoint a new chancellor. A City Colleges spokeswoman directed questions about Lightfoot’s administrative staffing to the mayor-elect’s team.

“Chancellor Salgado had a very positive introductory meeting with the mayor-elect's chief of staff and looks forward to meeting Mayor-elect Lightfoot and more members of her team in the coming weeks,” said spokeswoman Katheryn Hayes.

City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado speaks at a City Club of Chicago luncheon in 2018.
Bill Healy/WBEZ
City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado speaks at a City Club of Chicago luncheon in 2018.

Salgado became Chancellor nearly two years ago, replacing former Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, who stepped down after a tumultuous six-year tenure. Hyman overhauled the system under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s direction, a process known as Reinvention.

During that time, faculty members took a vote of no confidence in her leadership. They were frustrated with the changes, especially the decision to designate each college as a “center of excellence” in a particular field and centralize programs at certain colleges. They argue it made programs less accessible to students who couldn’t travel as far to attend certain classes.

Teachers union president Tony Johnston said Salgado’s leadership was a welcome change at the time, but frustrations remain as many faculty members say Salgado hasn’t done enough to reverse the decisions made under Reinvention.

I call it, ‘Putting a smiley face on Reinvention,’ ” Johnston told WBEZ earlier this year. “They’re able to talk to us in a respectful way,” referring to Salgado and his administration. “Certainly, that’s a welcome change. But the policies in essence haven’t changed.”

Earlier this year, faculty members almost went on strike. Clerical employees and adult educators have been without a contract for almost two years.

“We’re looking for a chancellor, either Chancellor Salgado or a new chancellor, who is willing to roll back and reverse those program consolidations,” said Miller. “And open up opportunities for students to be able to take courses and complete degrees at their local campuses.”

Johnston said Lightfoot’s transition team reached out to him and asked the faculty union to provide a two-page memo on their vision for City Colleges. Johnston said the union plans to reinforce their view that Reinvention should be reversed. He also plans to advocate for an expansion of free tuition to more students, an overhaul of dual credit courses and more funding for developmental education.

Both union presidents say they support an elected school board for City Colleges of Chicago. A bill was filed in the Illinois General Assembly to create an elected school board for the district, but it has not made it out of committee. Meanwhile, legislators in the state House voted overwhelmingly to create an elected school board for Chicago Public Schools.

Lightfoot supported an elected school board during the campaign, but told WBEZ last month that the bill, which calls for 20 board members plus a board president, would create a school board that’s far too big.

“Having a school board of 21 people is completely unwieldy,” Lightfoot said in an interview. “That will be a recipe for disaster and chaos. It’s way too large.”

Johnston said Lightfoot’s recent “backtracking” on support raised suspicions of whether she really supports an elected board for CPS or the City Colleges.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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