Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said Thursday he believes in “more democracy — not less” and the state Senate delivered just that by passing a bill to create a 21-member elected school board in Chicago.
One day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot denounced the bill as having “nothing to do with democracy,” Welch argued just the opposite. He called the Senate bill “a pretty good compromise” and said the House is likely to pass it without the makeover the mayor has demanded.
If anything, Welch said he would have preferred a speedier timetable than waiting until November 2024 to seat half the new board members and November 2026 to elect the other half.
“The bill does not set the timeline that leader [Delia] Ramirez from my team advocated for. But there are key protections during the transition period. That includes a moratorium on school closures. City Council confirmation of temporarily appointed members,” Welch said.
“I like the bill because it’s a move towards a fully-elected school board. I believe in more democracy — not less. I’m a product of an elected school board and believe that elections work. ... When… all sides are not happy, you’ve got a pretty good compromise on the table.”
Lightfoot has branded the 21-member board “unwieldy.” She’s concerned it could make it more difficult for her to replace retiring Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson.
With “no controls around how much money gets spent,” she’s concerned CPS parents could be priced out of school board races. After one teachers strike and the threat of another, she also worries an elected board could be dominated by Chicago Teachers Union members.
The mayor is equally concerned about the moratorium on school closings, consolidations or phase-outs until new board members take office in early 2025.
Welch doesn’t share Lightfoot’s concerns about cost-prohibitive school board races.
“The fact that they would be running in districts is a response to that concern. If they were running citywide, I could imagine that those elections would just cost a ridiculous amount of money,” he said.
The speaker also dismissed as unfounded Lightfoot’s fears of an elected school board dominated by her political adversaries in the Chicago Teachers Union.
Rather, he argued, the CTU “should be concerned with who else may dominate” school board elections.
“There’s folks that are not gonna just roll over because you have an elected school board. You have charter schools that are very well-funded. … You have business groups that may want to chime in. I’m a product of an elected school board. I know all of the interest groups that get involved in elected school board races,” the speaker said.
“Teachers unions don’t always prevail. You’re talking about a 21-member school board with 10 of those seats being elected [in the first round]. They’re gonna be elected from districts. I don’t think you can safely assume that the CTU’s gonna win all of those seats.”
In his first spring session as speaker since replacing his political mentor Michael Madigan, Welch also engineered approval of new legislative maps that include eight districts where Republican incumbents will be pitted against each other.
He makes no apologies for flexing the Democrats’ super-majority muscle, even though House Republican leader Jim Durkin has accused Welch of following the Madigan political playbook.
“Republicans wanted us to come to gridlock so they could force us past our June 30th constitutional deadline. … We weren’t gonna do that. We weren’t gonna allow the party that stands for voter suppression to have a 50-50 chance of drawing the maps. So that was the proper time to use our power,” Welch said.
“We didn’t use incumbent addresses to draw maps. In fact, the first map that went out had more incumbents going against each other. We responded to Republican concerns [and] were able to separate a number of them out. … Instead of complaining, they should be thanking us.”
Welch was equally unapologetic about ethics legislation approved by the General Assembly in response to the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal that ended Madigan’s reign as the longest-serving speaker in any state legislature.
That’s even though it includes a widely-ridiculed, six-month lobbying ban for lawmakers that pales by comparison to the two-year lobbying ban approved by the Chicago City Council.
“I have two kids. They’re 9 and 7. I celebrated their baby steps. Steps are steps in the right direction. … The fact that we don’t have a revolving door at all but now we will is a significant step. We can’t allow others to diminish that fact,” the speaker said.
“We couldn’t get support for a two-year revolving door. But we got support for a six-month revolving door. … We took an important step and we should be proud of that. … The energy bill, which we’re gonna be coming back for, will have its own ethics provisions contained within it as well. Yet another step the legislature will take.”