What could an elected school board mean for Chicago? Here’s what other large districts have seen

Experts in cities with elected boards say Chicago could see big money flow into its campaigns but also more representation in pockets of the city.

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Students head to class at Lane Tech College Prep High School on April 19, 2021.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Talk of a potential elected Chicago school board has been dominated by its expected size — 21 members, the most of any major urban district in the nation — plus the decentralizing of accountability and the seemingly inevitable influence of big money elections.

As advocates’ longtime dream of a fully elected board for Chicago Public Schools looks closer than ever to reality, critics and supporters alike can look to other major cities’ boards for lessons — and warnings — on how to implement a new system.

While the state legislature might address many of those questions by the time the city’s first school board elections roll around in late 2024, experts who follow other districts say Chicago has an opportunity to launch its elected board on good footing if new processes and safeguards are created and norms are established.

“Elected boards are kind of a core of democracy” and fundamental to giving families a voice, said Duncan Klussmann, a former superintendent at a Houston-area district and now a clinical assistant professor at the University of Houston.

But getting a bill over the finish line — as long as it has taken — is only one hurdle, he said.

“Thinking through all of these operational pieces is going to determine whether it works or not,” Klussmann said. “Just passing it doesn’t mean it works.”

Is 21 seats a ‘crazy dynamic’ or real elected democracy?

The nation’s top 10 largest districts with elected boards all have fewer than 10 seats, the biggest being nine-member boards in Atlanta, Houston and Miami. New York City has a system of mayoral control and Los Angeles has seven elected board seats. 

That means Chicago’s new board would more than double the size of the next largest counterpart. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has backed off a campaign promise to support an elected board, has pointed to its size as a reason why the bill should not become law.

Advocates of the bill that passed the state Senate last week and is expected to pass the House soon — including the Chicago Teachers Union — suggest two key benefits to such a large body: Districts will be small enough for the average parent to operate a door-to-door campaign that can compete with well-funded opponents, and families in pockets of the city that have seen huge population loss, like on the West Side, will have representation without being grouped with other geographic areas, like the Northwest or Southwest Sides, that have different interests.

John Rogers, the director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he favors the larger board and would like to see L.A. “substantially” expand its number of seats.

“Chicago, like Los Angeles, spans a huge geographic space,” he said. “In Los Angeles, seven board members is a very small number when you think about the vast expanse but also the population as a whole. It’s not a particularly democratic process. … Each school board member in Los Angeles is serving a larger constituency than members of Congressional districts.”

But Julie Slayton, a University of Southern California clinical education professor, called 21 members a “crazy dynamic” that could cause low functionality without accomplishing the intended goals.

“It will be very difficult for them to get anything done,” Slayton said, and voting blocs could develop that defeat the purpose of smaller geographical districts and outnumber the smaller populated areas anyway.

Klussmann said he understands and applauds the intent behind a 21-seat board. He suggested hiring central office staff to act as first points of contact and liaisons between the board and the district, or centralizing that communication through the board president. And the board’s role needs to be well-defined as policy-setting rather than district operations, he said, because otherwise the CPS CEO job could be unwieldy because the district leader will be constantly pulled away from day-to-day management.

When Klussmann took over as a superintendent in the midst of a leadership crisis, 70% of his time was spent working with and managing his seven board members, he said. That share of work flipped by the time he retired, but board work was still time consuming.

“It could become very unmanageable if I receive 21 calls every day.”

Who’s accountable?

Rogers urged Chicago to set clear guidelines for board members. In L.A., he said, board members over time have hired so many aides that their combined staff is larger than the district’s central office staff. At the same time, board member salaries have grown into the six-figures. The Illinois bill doesn’t address either issue.

Rogers said he also doesn’t buy Lightfoot’s argument that the district’s failure or success should reflect on the mayor’s office, and that a large elected board leaves nobody accountable. The mayor has several responsibilities that can impact her electability, he said, so mayoral control doesn’t necessarily allow voters to voice their concerns specifically about schools. Whether through mayoral or school board elections, Chicagoans will hold someone to account, Rogers said.

“A stronger argument for mayoral control is the benefits that potentially accrue when governance of schools intersects with city services in ways that are mutually beneficial,” Rogers said, such as the mayor coordinating housing and public safety policies with schools.

But those benefits of mayoral control go away if those systems aren’t used in tandem to address social problems, he said.

The varying interests of members representing unique neighborhoods could also cause problems, Klussmann said, arguing that Houston’s public school system has suffered from a lack of at-large board members who would view the district holistically rather than through the lens of their particular corner.

Big money elections on their way?

Campaign finance, meanwhile, could become a major issue in Chicago as it is in cities across the country, experts warned. 

Los Angeles has seen two straight historically expensive races with big outside spending, and campaigns have either been backed by billionaire charter and business interests or the teachers union. Donors who have relatively little stake in the district, like former N.Y.C. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have shelled out huge money, while candidates who aren’t financed by either group — or aren’t independently wealthy — haven’t been viable, Rogers said.

In last year’s L.A. school board elections, political groups spent more than $15 million to sway three races. In 2017, charter and reformer interests spent nearly $10 million while the union and its backers dished out $5 million. Charter groups won a board majority over teachers union candidates in 2017 and held their control last year.

Klussmann, Slayton and Rogers all said campaign finance restrictions are a necessity as Chicago establishes its elected board. Otherwise the same proxy wars could play out between charter and business interests and the teachers union and other progressives.

Rogers said he doesn’t necessarily see smaller districts helping fend off big money. He liked the idea of parents walking door to door in a tiny geographic area to overcome massive spending, but he could imagine campaign dollars diverted from television and radio ads to more campaign staff and signs that could have a similar effect.

Money could actually go a longer way in a smaller district, Klussmann said, pointing out that $100,000 in a neighborhood race would have a bigger impact than in a larger campaign. 

Slayton said the state legislature addressing campaign finance would certainly help. But the school system will still need to empower candidates that don’t have connections to large donors if this really solves a representation problem.

“Money aside, we’re not creating an equal playing field,” Slayton said. “There are entrenched inequities that are going to drive this problem irrespective of money. You’ve got racism. All of these things are going to drive who has access.”

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