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Elected CPS board ‘supposed to be about democracy,’ but that’s ‘not what happened’ in Springfield, Lightfoot says

Switching to an elected school board is perhaps “the most consequential change in governance” ever for Chicago Public Schools, Lightfoot said. “It can’t be about the politics. It’s got to be about the people” — meaning, the students and their parents.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the resignation of CPS CEO Janice Jackson and the future of CPS during a press conference to announce the resignation of Janice Jackson as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools at City Hall in the Loop, Monday, May 3, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is shown last month, speaking about the resignation of Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

An elected Chicago Public Schools board is “supposed to be about democracy, but what happened in Springfield had nothing to do with democracy,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday.

One day after the Illinois Senate overwhelmingly voted to phase in what the mayor has long viewed as an “unwieldy” 21-member elected school board, Lightfoot said that vote — her latest in a string of legislative defeats — was only temporary.

“We’re gonna keep our fight where it should be: making sure that our children are heard. That their educational futures are secured. That parents have a seat at the table. Why that sense of urgency around those core values is something that some folks in Springfield don’t get, I don’t know. But there has to be accountability for ignoring the people,” she said.

“This is supposed to be about democracy, but what happened in Springfield had nothing to do with democracy. But democracy — mark my word — will prevail.”

Lightfoot called the switch from an appointed to an elected school board “the most consequential change in governance” in decades, if not ever for the Chicago Public Schools.

As such, “It can’t be about the politics. It’s got to be about the people,” meaning the students and their parents, she said.

But the mayor argued the Senate version would virtually exclude parents from competing in school board seats because there are “no controls around how much money gets spent” on those races.

Pointing to a $1 million school board race in Los Angeles, Lightfoot said: “We don’t need that here” in Chicago.

“It is critically important that there is a negotiated resolution that puts our children and our parents first. I do not believe what came out of the Senate … does any of those things. … I’m gonna keep fighting ... to get a negotiated resolution that reflects the realities and necessities of CPS. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

A 21-member elected board could affect Lightfoot’s ability to find a replacement for retiring Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, she said.

“It could have a negative impact if a CEO doesn’t believe that he or she is actually gonna have the ability to make a meaningful difference in the quality of education in the lives of our children,” Lightfoot said.

“We’ve made that argument over and over again. That’s something that clearly fell on way too many deaf ears.”

Yet another concern is the built-in moratorium on school closings, consolidations or phase-outs until the new board members take office in early 2025.

“It’s a mistake that we would foreclose parents’ ability to come together with a plan and offer up consolidation or some other reshaping of schools,” Lightfoot said.

“For example, there’s a group of parents in North Lawndale that have been trying for years to consolidate three schools [to] get one school that is a STEM program. The language that is in that bill right now would cut that off at the pass and not allow it to happen. That’s a mistake. We made that argument. But it fell on deaf ears in the Senate.”

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: 20 members elected from local districts, headed by a president elected by citywide vote, beginning in 2023.

Earlier this year, she fueled speculation about whether she will ever deliver on that pivotal campaign promise by telling the New York Times CPS would “never have opened without mayoral control.”

The Senate bill would create a 21-member 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.

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.

After one teachers strike and the threat of another before schools were finally reopened after the pandemic, the mayor’s office has been particularly interested in preventing Chicago Teachers Union leaders from running for school board seats. Lightfoot conspicuously did not mention that objection.

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.