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Bill creating 21-member elected Chicago school board passes state Senate

The board would initially be split between mayoral appointees and elected members, then become fully elected in 2027. The bill needs to be sent back to the House so members there can agree on the changes made to a previously approved bill.

The Chicago Board of Education
The Chicago Board of Education currently. has seven members appointed by the mayor.
Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — The state Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would create a partially elected Chicago school board in 2025 — and the city’s first-ever fully elected board in 2027 — though critics of the latest proposal remain, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Sen. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, said his amendment to House Bill 2908, one of the bills circulating in the General Assembly to create an elected school board for Chicago Public Schools, “ensures the city will have democracy over its schools, but it’s just the first step.

“We now have to do hard work of making sure it functions well, to make sure it works for taxpayers,” said Martwick, a lead sponsor of the bill.

Ahead of the Senate’s vote, Martwick urged members to pass the legislation, saying “this is about creating elected accountability,” but noting there was “no easy path” to getting there.

“Is this the perfect compromise? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one,” he said.

State Sen, Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, right, talks with state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, on the floor of the Illinois Senate on Tuesday.
State Sen, Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, right, talks with state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, on the floor of the Illinois Senate on Tuesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

But Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, asking “what’s the rush?” when advocates have already been pushing for an elected board for 15 years. She questioned the late addition of three elements of Martwick’s amended bill.

“If you haven’t had the bill in 15 years, you don’t need the bill today,” Lightford said, adding that she nevertheless was conflicted because she supports an elected board. “This is not going to solve the problem that you’re trying to get at.”

The Senate voted 36 to 15 to advance the bill, which must head back to the House where it needs a three-fifths majority to take effect within the next year. Assuming all 118 House members vote on the measure, it would require 71 votes to pass.

Lightford and Sen. Napoleon Harris III, D-Harvey, voted present.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, left, speaks with state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea, on the floor of the Illinois Senate on Tuesday.
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, left, speaks with state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea, on the floor of the Illinois Senate on Tuesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Chicago is the only locality in the state without an elected school board. Other major urban districts across the country — CPS is the third-largest public school system in the nation — are split on the issue, with mayoral-appointed boards in New York and Boston but elected boards in Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

In a Senate executive committee hearing on the amendment earlier Tuesday, Sybil Madison, Lightfoot’s deputy mayor for education and soon-to-be new chief of staff, said the mayor’s office still felt there were serious pitfalls. She urged senators to oppose the bill.

“We appreciate the legislative process, but we continue to believe this proposal has been rushed and the bill is flawed in ways that could have grave consequences for our students,” said Madison.

The proposal would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees — including the board president — and 10 elected members.

The first elected members would run in the November 2024 general election for four-year terms. Though the mayor would continue picking the board president, City Council confirmation would become necessary. The mayor currently appoints a seven-member board, including the president, without an approval process.

After two years, the seats of the board president and the 10 appointees would become elected ones in January 2027 through a November 2026 election. Those members would also serve four-year terms.

The city would be divided into 10 districts for the 2024 school board elections and 20 districts for the 2026 ballot. That map would need to be drawn by February 2022.

All elected board members would run in a particular district other than the board president, who would run at large. The vice president would be a member elected by the rest of the board.

The bill would set a moratorium on school closings, consolidations or phase-outs until the new board members take office in early 2025, and it would move appointment of the CPS inspector general from the mayor’s purview onto the elected board’s plate.

It also would create a Diversity Advisory Board, filled by mayoral appointees, to advise the school board on resources tailored to non-citizen students and their families, such as equitable and inclusive learning environments.

Madison pointed to the moratorium on school actions as one issue of contention, as well as the requirement for City Council confirmation for mayoral appointees.

The city also wants the mayor’s handpicked board president in 2025 to serve for four years, not two. Both Madison and current Board of Education President Miguel del Valle repeated a long-standing concern that 21 members is too many. Del Valle also urged inclusion of a provision that would allow undocumented immigrants and other non-citizens to vote and run for the board.

The mayor’s office was particularly interested in preventing Chicago Teachers Union leaders from running for school board seats.

The amendment as it stands already prevents any CPS employees from seeking a board seat. Most CTU officers are still employed by the district but are on leave for union work — making them ineligible for a seat under this proposal.

Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, the majority whip, called the mayor’s request “absurd” and “undemocratic.”

“Where else in the history of Illinois have we precluded someone from running for office outside of a felony?” he asked Madison. She said the mayor’s position is that a CTU leader, or anyone with an organization that has a contract with the district, would have a conflict of interest and couldn’t serve on the school board.

People who own or are employed by a company that has a contract with the district would be barred from the board under the latest version of the bill.

The bill will be sent back to the House so members there can vote on the amendment.

The House adjourned early Tuesday morning, but Martwick said members of that chamber are likely to come back in the next couple weeks to vote on the school board bill and other unfinished business.

Rachel Hinton reported from Springfield, Nader Issa from Chicago.