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Fully elected Chicago school board gets final thumbs up from Illinois House in ‘long-awaited first step’

The first election — for 10 of the seats on the 21-member body — would be in 2024.

High school students return to their classrooms at Lane Tech College Prep. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago will soon have an elected school board thanks to a bill passed by members of the Illinois House Wednesday over objections from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The House voted 70 to 41 to advance the bill, handing another loss to Lightfoot who has been vocal in her opposition to the prospect of an elected board. The bill will soon head to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has voiced support for an elected board and is expected to sign the legislation.

The measure was just one piece of legislation state representatives debated and passed during their one-day special session Wednesday.

House Bill 2908 as amended would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees — including the board president — and 10 elected members.

Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, said the bill isn’t perfect but “this is a down payment on democracy.

“This is a practical, common-sense bill,” Buckner said. “This is not revolution — this is reform.”

“Today is that long-awaited first step” in creating an elected board, said Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, although lawmakers still may “refine” the elected school board through followup legislation to make sure it “works the way the children of Chicago need it to.”

In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said the vote “represents the will of the people, and after more than a quarter of a century, moves our district forward in providing democracy and voice to students and their families.”

But critics, like Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, said “this bill is not ready to go.” He pointed to the size of the board, which Lightfoot has said is “unwieldy,” and campaign financing issues for the board’s elections as issues that still need to be resolved.

Shortly after the bill passed the House, sponsor of the bill Rep. Delia Ramirez filed a motion to reconsider, which would keep the bill in that chamber likely only temporarily. That move is likely strategic to ensure an opponent of the measure doesn’t try to hold up the bill. Ramirez did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Senate voted to approve the measure earlier this month.

Once signed, the legislation mandates that the first elected members would run in the November 2024 general election for a four-year term. Though the mayor would continue picking the board president, the City Council would need to confirm that pick.

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 initially be divided into 10 districts for the 2024 school board elections, then expand to 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 also sets 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.

House OKs gov’s budget changes

The House also voted along party lines, 71 to 44 with one voting present, to accept Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s changes to the budget, Senate Bill 2800, after allowing some members to participate in Wednesday’s session remotely.

Those changes set effective dates for pieces of the budget — some dates of implementation were missing or incorrect in earlier versions of the bill.

Republicans urged a no vote on accepting the changes and fixing Democrats’ mistakes and knocked the majority party for the lack of transparency around the budget process at the end of session last month.

“This is what happens when you have an unaccountable majority power who doesn’t really care about the public, they just care about checking off the boxes,” Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, said. “This is a budget that was passed after midnight because the majority party hoped the world wasn’t watching. ... You screwed it up, you shouldn’t be doing it this way, you shouldn’t be cutting people out of the process.”

The budget now heads back to Pritzker for final approval ahead of the July 1 start to the state’s next fiscal year.

Firearm Owners ID card modernization passes

Lawmakers in the House also voted 75 to 40 on a bill Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, said would modernize the state’s Firearm Owners Identification card process. The bill, House Bill 562, doesn’t require fingerprinting for the gun license, but does create a path for the state to digitize the firearm ID system and sets up a process for state law enforcement agencies to take guns from those whose cards were revoked.