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In battle for elected school board, undocumented immigrants might be left out

If the state passes an elected school board measure now working its way through the Legislature, undocumented immigrants would not be able to vote.

State Sen. Robert F. Martwick. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
State Rep. Robert F. Martwick. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Should Chicago finally get an elected school board after years of attempts, undocumented immigrants — who are currently able to vote for and serve as local school council members — might not be able to vote for the citywide board members.

While some municipalities across the country let non-U.S. citizens vote in local elections, Chicago does not. Non-U.S. citizens can’t vote for city offices or state offices, according to the city’s Board of Election Commissioners.

And the elected school board measure’s sponsor, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, said there’s nothing that can be done to give the undocumented a vote — unless a separate bill is filed to try to take up that battle.

“All I want to do is make an appointed board an elected school board. Right now the undocumented have no say in who the appointed members are, but they can weight in on local school councils and serve on local school councils. So they can weigh in,” Martwick said. “I don’t intend to affect the LSC process. I’m seeking to bolster it.”

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s office last week told reporters that Martwick’s bill — which cleared the Illinois House on April 4 — is on hold, at the request of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who wanted to take a deeper dive into specifics.

State Rep. Robert Martwick at a rally in support of his school board bill. File Photo.
Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Martwick said he hasn’t been provided with any updates as the clock ticks to adjournment on May 31.

“I assume that she’ll [Lightfoot] reach out to him [Cullerton]. I would think that as the person who has been the sponsor of the bill for five years and passed it three times that I would get a call and would be asked to be invited, but I don’t know yet,” Martwick said. “Not yet.”

In February, Martwick and Lightfoot famously got into a shouting match — at a campaign news conference Lightfoot called to denounce legislation Martwick filed that would change the way the Cook County assessor from an elected to an appointed position.

Martwick had endorsed Toni Preckwinkle over Lightfoot in the mayoral race.

And Lightfoot accused Preckwinkle and Martwick of working together on a “power play” to undermine newly elected Assessor Fritz Kaegi. Martwick blasted Lightfoot for what he called Donald Trump-like theatrics that show “exactly why you are wholly unprepared to be the mayor of this city.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, left,  and state Rep. Robert Martwick, right. File Photos.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, left, and state Rep. Robert Martwick, right. File Photos.
Sun-Times file photos.

Under Martwick’s school board proposal, the board would be comprised of 20 members elected in individual districts from around the city, compared to the seven appointed members currently on the Chicago Board of Education. And a board president would be elected citywide.

This is certainly not the first time legislators have tried to pass legislation to get Chicago an elected school board. Cullerton supported a measure in 2017, but the House didn’t act on it. Martwick re-filed the legislation this year.

Two years ago, the Senate’s version reduced the size of the board and created a Chicago panel to draw the boundary maps for board seats, rather than lawmakers, amidst concerns over who had that authority. The Senate adopted those changes, but the measure died in the Illinois House when lawmakers did not act on it.

In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the broken school system and began directly appointing a school board whose members previously were proffered by a grassroots nominating commission.

There have been several proposals in the mix over the years, and the number of board members has fluctuated in those proposals. But both Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker are supportive of an elected school board.

Lightfoot has said she is not comfortable with the number of board members in Martwick’s proposal. She has said she wants to work with Springfield “to pass a fully elected and representative school board.”

Lightfoot, too, has suggested local school council members should run for the school board, should it become an elected office. But in that scenario, if a local school council member is undocumented, they would not be able to run.

The measure, should it pass, wouldn’t go into effect until 2023. On Wednesday, all seven members of the Chicago Board of Education announced they were stepping down, opening the door to Lightfoot’s appointees.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to calls for comment.