Chicago’s Mayor Vows To Change Elected School Board Bill Before It Becomes Law

Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the bill passed by the Illinois Senate Tuesday could hurt the school district’s ability to replace the outgoing CEO.

WBEZ
Under a bill passed by the Illinois Senate, the Chicago Board of Education members would all be elected by 2027. A similar bill has passed the House but it still needs final approval from that chamber. The governor supports a fully elected board. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
WBEZ
Under a bill passed by the Illinois Senate, the Chicago Board of Education members would all be elected by 2027. A similar bill has passed the House but it still needs final approval from that chamber. The governor supports a fully elected board. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Chicago’s Mayor Vows To Change Elected School Board Bill Before It Becomes Law

Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the bill passed by the Illinois Senate Tuesday could hurt the school district’s ability to replace the outgoing CEO.

One day after the Illinois Senate voted to put Chicago on a path to electing all school board members for the first time, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is vowing to change the bill before it becomes law.

Lightfoot argued that if no adjustments are made, it could hurt Chicago Public Schools’ ability to recruit a new CEO to replace Janice Jackson, who steps down at the end of June.

“It could have a negative impact if a CEO doesn’t believe that he or she is actually going to have the ability to make a meaningful difference in the quality of education in the lives of our children,” the mayor said at a Wednesday news conference. “There’s a lot more work that’s going to be done before any kind of bill becomes law.”

The Senate on Tuesday passed a compromise bill that would transition Chicago to a fully elected board in 2027. The House, which overwhelmingly approved a different version, still must vote on this version of the bill before it goes to the governor. Gov. JB Pritzker has said that he supports a fully elected board. It’s unclear when the House will reconvene.

For decades, Chicago mayors have enjoyed the privilege of appointing all members to the board that governs the city’s public school system. But the bill passed Tuesday would start the transition to a fully elected board. It passed 36 to 15, with two members voting present.

Under the compromise, the transition would begin in 2025 with a hybrid board, where 11 members are appointed by the mayor and 10 are elected by voters.

Starting in 2027, the city would get a fully elected board. The election to pick the remaining board members would take place in 2026.

“It is about democracy, not democracy for some. It is about democracy for all,” said Sen. Rob Martwick urging his colleagues to vote in favor of the bill. Martwick, a Chicago Democrat, first introduced a version of the elected school board bill six years ago.

But advocates for a fully elected school board immediately are deeply dissatisfied. In a statement from several community groups on Wednesday, they said the compromise bill “continues to let down Black and brown families in Chicago Public Schools,” saying six years was too long to wait for an fully elected board. “In a time of uncertainty and instability, a mayoral-controlled hybrid board will continue the status quo that has continuously failed the people of Chicago.”

Still, the bill that passed the senate is a major blow to Lightfoot.

Her administration tried to argue against specific elements of the bill and an elected board in general. These include concerns about big-money influence in the elections, the size of the board, ensuring a way for parents to get on the board and letting non-citizens run. She made clear she isn’t giving up the fight.

“When we’re talking about the most consequential change in governance for the Chicago Public Schools, it can’t be about the politics. It’s got to be about the people [and] the people that matter most are our children. So, we’re going to keep making sure that message gets through and resonates. And I’m confident that we’ll get to a better place,” she said.

Lightfoot also strongly opposes a provision of the bill that imposes a moratorium on school closures or consolidations until 2025. This would threaten a community-driven plan under consideration to close three schools in North Lawndale and replace them with a new school as well as similar plans that may come up down the road.

The moratorium is a concession to proponents who are disappointed they will have to wait years for a fully elected board.

Allowing the mayor to continue to appoint members until 2027 is a concession to her. But, starting in 2025, the mayor will no longer be able to unilaterally appoint members. The mayor at the time will have to get the “advice and consent” of the city council on appointments — a measure that further erodes the mayor’s power and is opposed by Lightfoot.

The bill also creates a mayoral-appointed advisory committee to represent the interests of undocumented residents, who currently can’t run for the board.

The change from an appointed board to an elected school board in Chicago is huge. The closest the city has come to anything like an elected board is a community nomination process for board members that once existed.

In 1995, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley was given the power to appoint the school board. At the time, the school district was seen as deeply troubled, academically and financially. The mayor would bear full accountability for the school district and also was given more authority to decide how state money would be spent.

The school board is responsible for hiring the district’s chief executive officer, passing annual budgets and approving policy changes. Chicago Public Schools is the third-largest school district in the nation with a total operating budget of about $7 billion.

CPS is one of nine city school districts in the country with boards appointed by mayors — and the only one in Illinois. The New York City school district has an appointed board, while Los Angeles’ is elected.

The rejection of an appointed board signals a rebuke of the current mayor and her predecessors, who all supported an appointed board, and some of the policies favored by Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. These include the opening of privately-run charter schools and the closing of schools run by the district. Many parents and community members said these actions tore apart their communities, but they felt the school board did not listen to their protests.

A grassroots movement to move Chicago to a fully elected board has been growing in Chicago over the last decade, culminating with Tuesday’s vote.

Going into the weekend, there were two bills on the table — one calling for a fully elected 21-member board and the other, backed by Lightfoot, calling for a hybrid board where the mayor continued to appoint the majority of members. The goal, set by Senate President Don Harmon, was to reach some kind of compromise that resulted in a fully elected board.

The first compromise bill presented this weekend didn’t give Chicago a fully elected school board until 2028, but grassroots groups negotiated down to 2027. Still, they remain frustrated about waiting five years.

Meanwhile, Lightfoot lost her authority to appoint the entire CPS board, but she bought herself several years.

In addition to worries by Lightfoot and others opposed to the 21-member board, opponents also credited mayoral control of the school board with helping set the stage for academic improvements in CPS

Opponents of a fully elected model also fear that the Chicago Teachers Union could capture seats on the board. The CTU is a strong supporter of an elected board.

But proponents argued that Chicago parents, most of whom are Black and Latino, should have the same power as other Illinois voters to elect a school board. They say elected board members will represent the interests of city residents and will be accountable to the people they serve.

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