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Chicago gets elected school board — Pritzker signs bill opposed by Lightfoot, looks ‘forward to ongoing conversations’ with her

The legislation, which the governor signed into law without the fanfare that has accompanied other bill signings, would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees — including the board president — and 10 elected members.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks as Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a news conference outside the United Center in March.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks as Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a news conference outside the United Center in March.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday signed legislation ushering in an elected school board in Chicago over the strong objections of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

That legislation, which the governor signed into law without the fanfare that has accompanied other bill signings, would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees — including the board president — and 10 elected members.

The mayor currently appoints a seven-member board, including the president, without an approval process. She has been a vocal opponent of the new legislation, characterizing it as creating an “unwieldy” school board.

In a statement, Pritzker said the plan laid out in the bill he signed will “help students and their families have a strong voice in important decisions about the education system in Chicago.

“I applaud the members of the General Assembly for working together on behalf of their constituents to pass legislation that required compromise and thoughtful deliberation,” Pritzker said. “I look forward to ongoing conversations with the General Assembly and mayor, in particular about the district’s finances, board members’ compensation and campaign rules.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference last year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a news conference last year.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Since the General Assembly’s spring session adjourned, Pritzker has held a series of bill-signing ceremonies to spotlight legislative victories ahead of his reelection campaign. The events typically feature speeches from legislators and advocates, souvenir signing pens and holding up copies of the newly minted laws for the cameras. Pritzker held four this week alone — two in one day.

But a high level source close to Pritzker said the governor opted to avoid such an event for the school board bill because he didn’t want to “poke [Lightfoot] in the eye” on what was for her a major defeat.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker holds up legislation aimed at advancing the rights of people in the LGBTQ community at a bill-signing ceremony on Tuesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker holds up legislation aimed at advancing the rights of people in the LGBTQ community at a bill-signing ceremony on Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Like Pritzker, the lawmakers took their victory laps through written statements.

State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, who championed the bill in the House, said, “I know what a significant win this bill is for the community I serve.”

“To see it come to fruition is a testament to Chicagoans’ ability to take back their power when it comes to our kids’ futures,” Ramirez said. “An elected school board is what democracy looks like.”

Lightfoot also put her thoughts in writing.

In a letter to Pritzker sent Thursday, Lightfoot said she’s “long argued that we need a paradigmatic change in the governance of our school system,” but the bill sent to Pritzker wasn’t the best way to bring reform to the city’s schools.

“I remain extremely concerned about various proposal components, many of which revolve around CPS finances, and the district’s future ability to function without appropriate safeguards, recognizing the district has remained solvent due to annual City of Chicago subsidies,” Lightfoot wrote in the letter.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot shown introduces former Elgin schools superintendent José Torres as the interim CEO for Chicago Public Schools in June.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot shown introduces former Elgin schools superintendent José Torres as the interim CEO for Chicago Public Schools in June.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

“If Springfield draws these districts based on population, the true diversity of CPS could be under-represented on the Board ... While the current language of HB 2908 fails to address these concerns, I am hopeful that by working together with the bill’s sponsors and other stakeholders, we can agree to trailer bill language that does so.”

State Sen. Robert Martwick said he wasn’t “terribly surprised” by Lightfoot’s response.

The Northwest Side Democrat said he was grateful Pritzker signed the legislation but wished there had been a ceremony to celebrate the work of the organizers who made it possible.

“I remain grateful to the governor for his commitment to this,” Martwick said. “I’m so glad that he lived up to his promise to sign this bill. He was steadfast from his very first campaign in the Democratic primary that he would support this ... I wish he would have given the people who have spent so much time and effort and energy on this a worthy celebration, but we’ll figure that out.”

In its statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said the new law ends a “decades-long fight by parents, rank-and-file educators and community activists to provide our school district the same democratic rights afforded to every other district in the state of Illinois.”

“Students, families and educators will now have the voice they have long been denied for a quarter of a century by failed mayoral control of our schools,” the statement continued. “Chicago will finally have an elected board accountable to the people our schools serve, as it should be.”

“We are also thinking tonight about our beloved President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis, NBCT. This victory is hers as much as it is a victory for our city. Here’s to you, Karen.”

Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who died earlier this year, shown talking to reporters in 2015.
Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who died earlier this year, shown talking to reporters in 2015.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The newly signed law 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.

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.

The legislation goes into effect next June.