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Lightfoot says CPS would ‘never have opened without mayoral control,’ fuels speculation of backing away from elected school board

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Lightfoot’s claim in a New York Times interview is par for the course: “Our mayor has misled us on a number of issues.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference at City Hall, Thursday morning, Feb. 4, 2021, in Chicago.
At a Feb. 4 news conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks demanded that the Chicago Teachers Union reach agreement on COVID-19 safety protocols by the end of that day and bring students back to the classroom. It didn’t happen, though a deal was reached a few days later.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned as a staunch proponent of an elected school board, only to repeatedly block what she calls an “unwieldy” bill that would triple the size of the board to 21 members and a citywide elected president.

Now, she’s telling The New York Times Chicago Public Schools would “never have opened without mayoral control,” fueling speculation about whether she will ever deliver on that pivotal campaign promise.

The interview was conducted after the bitter negotiations that produced an agreement to gradually reopen CPS for pre-K, special education clusters, and students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In it, Lightfoot argued the negotiations were difficult because the CTU has political aspirations.

“I think, ultimately, they’d like to take over not only Chicago Public Schools, but take over running the city government,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

Lightfoot pushed back when the interviewer noted the CTU “might say that its larger aspirations are to increase funding for schools and to achieve goals like police reform so students are not criminalized.”

“I don’t believe that’s correct. I mean, if you look at their spending, there’s a clear indication of what their larger ambitious are,” she said.

Lightfoot once again noted she has “relationships” and signed contracts with “over 40” unions — with two exceptions. The Fraternal Order of Police, which she accused of “right-wing Trump aspirations,” and the CTU.

“When you have unions that have other aspirations beyond being a union and maybe being something akin to a political party, there’s always going to be conflict,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

Lightfoot was asked where she stands on an elected school board by an interviewer who noted that “some big cities with mayoral control of schools are open or moving toward concrete reopening plans,” while cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle with elected boards “seem stuck.”

“We would never have opened without mayoral control. It’s quite clear. The fact that LA and San Francisco had to sue to force the conversation about reopening?” the mayor was quoted as saying in the Times.

Amilcar Marquez drops off his daughter, Isabella, at Disney II Magnet Elementary School in the Old Irving Park neighborhood on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.
Amilcar Marquez drops off his daughter, Isabella, at Disney II Magnet Elementary School in the Old Irving Park neighborhood on Thursday, the first day back to school for teachers and students in pre-kindergarten and cluster programs.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

During a news conference Monday on the major snowstorm walloping Chicago, Lightfoot was asked whether her comments signal a broader retreat from her commitment to an elected school board.

The mayor did not answer the question directly, saying only: “The bottom line is, I think it was helpful for me to be directly involved in discussions with the Chicago Teachers Union and help add my [input] to the work that had already been ongoing with the Chicago Public Schools.”

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said Lightfoot’s claim that CPS would “never have opened without mayoral control” is par for the course for a politician who said one thing on the campaign trail and another once she took office.

“Our mayor has misled us on a number of issues: Lincoln Yards, Hilco, Anjanette Young, No Cop Academy. Her shift on the elected, representative school board is consistent with other misleading actions,” Davis Gates said.

To “exalt mayoral control in a post-Trump America is the wrong direction” for Democrats, Davis Gates said.

“Democrats should be prioritizing and amplifying democracy. … An elected school board is about democracy … for Chicagoans. One would even say that it is a voting rights issue. This is a district that serves predominantly students of color. Why shouldn’t their parents have an opportunity to take a vote for the futures of their neighborhoods, their schools and their children?” she said.

“You had an entire season of families, parents and students lifting their voices for what they needed from our school system, only to be shunned and muted throughout the process with our mayor. Those people — parents, families, students — deserve to have a voice, a seat at the table and the ability to create policy that represents real justice and equity.”

Davis Gates also pushed back against Lightfoot’s claim that the CTU aspires to take over the school system and city government. What the union wants is what’s best for students, their families, teachers’ families and the city at large, she said.

“Our members know better than anyone the intersection of housing insecurity, food insecurity, addiction, racism, segregation, over-policing in our school communities. That’s called advocacy. That’s called common good bargaining. That’s called being attentive and empathetic to the needs of the people we serve in the city,” she said.

“For the life of me, I don’t know why any elected official would make paraprofessionals, school clerks, clinicians and teachers their enemy.”

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Lightfoot’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, said he can understand why the mayor is backing away from the elected school board she promised.

“It is always easier to campaign than it is to govern and connect the complexities that exist between CTU and CPS, and you being the chief executive and you having to wear the jacket for that all the time,” Scott said.

“I can’t speak for her. But it would be very difficult for me to say, ‘I’m going to relinquish control’ then ultimately wear what happens with the children in the Chicago Public School system. It’s hard to do.”

Shortly after Lightfoot took office, the entire school board resigned, and Lightfoot appointed an entirely new board with a heavy emphasis on parents, local school council members and other stakeholders.

At the time, the mayor claimed the new board would serve until an elected school board is seated.

But she also asked then-Senate President John Cullerton to put a brick on an elected school board bill that had sailed through the Illinois House. It would have created a 21-member elected board. Lightfoot claimed it would be virtually impossible for a board that size to get anything done.

“We have to have a school board that’s actually gonna be able to function and that has true parent representatives on it. There’s nothing about the Rob Martwick bill that I like,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times then, referring to the bill’s chief sponsor.

“I don’t want to have another elected body where we’re gonna see outrageous amounts of money that need to be raised. That’s gonna exclude parent voices. … We’ve got to look at … the funding mechanisms so people don’t have to raise undue sums. That runs a risk of having undue influences shaping who gets on the board, who gets a state at the table, whose voices are heard.”

Last month, mayoral allies once again succeeded in blocking that bill that would triple the size of the Chicago Board of Education to 21 members, with a citywide elected president and 20 members elected from local districts beginning in 2023.

The CTU and the Grassroots Education Movement had accused Senate President Don Harmon of stalling the bill and demanded that he call it for a vote.