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415 million more reasons Springfield should say no to an elected Chicago school board

The City of Chicago gave $415.4 million to the public schools this year. That may never happen again if the mayor has no legal authority over the schools.

Activists demonstrate outside City Hall in March 2021 for a fully elected school board in Chicago.
Activists demonstrate outside City Hall in March 2021 for a fully elected school board in Chicago. With important questions still unanswered, legislators must put on the brakes, the Editorial Board writes.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Allow us to suggest another 415 million reasons for the state Legislature to reject a bill to create a fully elected school board for Chicago.

That’s $415.4 million, to be exact — the amount of money the City of Chicago kicked into the Chicago Public Schools’ budget for fiscal year 2021.

Good luck collecting that kind of cash in the future, no matter how pressing the need, if Chicago’s chief executive — the mayor — no longer has authority over the public schools.

The city as a whole has its own financial problems, as any mayor would be sure to point out, and other priorities, such as not raising property taxes, would come first. Let the 21 members of an elected school board solve their own problems.

Indeed, it’s not just a question of whether City Hall would, or even should, continue to subsidize the schools. It’s also a question of whether it would be legal if the mayor were no longer in charge.

“Legally separating the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools raises questions about the ongoing financial responsibility of the city to the school district,” argues the Civic Federation in a May 18 statement of its objections to an elected board. “No other Illinois city has a financial responsibility for its school system. Rather, each unit of local government is fully responsible for its own financial obligations.”

Which means CPS might achieve the “equity” with suburban and downstate school districts that supporters of an elected board are clamoring for — but not in the ways intended. CPS would be saddled with the same go-it-alone financial burden.

“If you want to treat Chicago like everyone else, you have to have an answer on the finances,” Federation President Laurence Msall told us Thursday. “To assume that the mayor or City Council is going to feel compelled to contribute to [a] government [entity] that is no longer their responsibility is illogical and reckless.”

Better, but still too flawed

Legislators in Springfield are debating a proposal to create a hybrid 21-person school board in 2023, with 10 members elected and another 10, plus the board chair, appointed by the mayor. In 2027, the board would become fully elected.

The proposal includes a provision for an independent commission that would evaluate the performance of the hybrid board after two years, with an eye toward making changes if necessary. We might find this reassuring if we had any faith in politically appointed “independent” commissions.

Lawmakers should instead pay attention to what Chicagoans say they really want: a hybrid board, A new survey from the group Stand for Children Illinois found that 47% of Chicago voters support a hybrid board, compared with just 32% who prefer an elected board. African Americans and Democrats preferred a hybrid model by even wider margins.

Listen to the people who put you there, legislators, and back away from a bad idea that’s likely full of unintended consequences.

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