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State Senate President Harmon wants an elected Chicago school board – but only partly for now

Senate President Don Harmon vowed Friday to pass a bill creating an elected school board this year, favoring a “hybrid model” of elected and appointed members. Mayor Lori Lightfoot backs that approach, while a fully elected board is supported by state House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and other House Democrats.

State Senator and Senate President Don Harmon speaks during a news conference at Oak Park and River Forest High School last year.
State Senator and Senate President Don Harmon speaks during a news conference at Oak Park and River Forest High School last year.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Calling for a shift to “a new era of leadership at Chicago Public Schools,” state Senate President Don Harmon vowed Friday to pass a bill creating an elected school board in Chicago this year, but preferably not the one the House sent to his chamber earlier this month setting up a fully elected board.

Instead, the Oak Park Democrat said he favors a “hybrid model” of elected and appointed members, which he says will “ensure a reasonable and orderly transition to a fully elected school board.”

That hybrid approach is backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, while the fully elected board is supported by state House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and other House Democrats.

In his statement, Harmon said he has asked sponsors of the competing proposals to “sit down and come up with a plan” to guide the transition. But in an interview with WBEZ on Friday, Harmon added that “if the only option were the [fully elected] proposal or nothing, the Senate might very well pass it.”

He also noted that advocates for each proposal were “very committed to their positions.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School earlier this month with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School earlier this month with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Two weeks ago, the House passed a proposal creating a Chicago school board with 21 members to be elected in Chicago’s 2023 and 2027 municipal elections. They would replace the seven-member board that is currently appointed by the Chicago mayor.

During debate on that bill, its sponsor, state Rep. Delia Ramirez, called an appointed school board “the antithesis of democratic representation.” The Near Northwest Side Democrat said her bill would allow Chicago to have “the same democracy” as the rest of Illinois.

But Lightfoot later called the House bill “unwieldy.” The proposal the mayor backs in the state Senate would create an 11-person board with three members elected and eight appointed by the mayor. The school board would also return to full mayoral control by 2032 unless the Legislature takes further action.

Lightfoot did not immediately respond to Harmon’s calls for negotiation.

Governor J.B. Pritzker has said he generally supports an elected school board but has so far declined to endorse a specific proposal.

In a statement released following passage of the House bill, Welch praised the fully elected plan, saying it would make the board “more equitable” and that “parents and community members deserve to have a seat at the table when it comes to their school district.”

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Justin L. Fowler /The State Journal-Register, distributed by the Associated Press

But following Harmon’s calls for compromise, Welch spokesperson Jaclyn Driscoll told the Sun-Times that the House speaker is “open to negotiations as the proposal goes forward in the Senate.”

“We knew when this passed this was going to be something that was going to be negotiated and we just need to get everybody to the table,” said Driscoll.

Even though they had supported an elected Chicago school board in the past, Republicans in the House shot down the fully elected board on the basis there was no compromise.

House Republican leader Jim Durkin said the debate stemmed from a “personality conflict” between Lightfoot and other Democrats rather than a policy disagreement.

Democratic state Rep. La Shawn Ford joined in on these complaints even though he eventually voted for the bill.

“It’s very important that the mayor has a say in this process, whether she’s late to the game or not,” the West Side Democrat said.

In his statement Friday, Harmon said he is sure “everyone involved in this issue has the best interests of the students, families, teachers and taxpayers at heart” and that the legislators are “close to a resolution.”