School board elections likely in Chicago’s future; more seats, too
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As the clock neared midnight on the last day of the spring legislative session, the Illinois Senate revived a plan that could someday strip Mayor Rahm Emanuel and future mayors of the ability to handpick members of the Chicago Board of Education.
And though Illinois politics is most certainly an unpredictable endeavor, the odds of the measure becoming reality look increasingly likely.
Yes, it’s still unclear whether Gov. Bruce Rauner will support the legislation to create an elected school board in Chicago. His approval would mean a big defeat for Emanuel — Rauner’s onetime friend turned political enemy — but it also would amount to a huge win for the Chicago Teachers Union, and, by extension, organized labor groups that Rauner has battled since taking office.
However, both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly back the idea of making Chicago’s school board elected like every other one in the state: The House approved the legislation 105-9, while the Senate vote was 53-2. That means that even if Rauner vetoes the legislation, lawmakers in both chambers would have the ability to override him and make the measure law.
Under the Senate-approved version of the legislation, the first election of school board members in Chicago would take place at the same time as the 2023 mayoral race. The original language put the school board election on the 2019 ballot, in which Emanuel is expected to seek a third term.
Senators late Wednesday also cleared an amendment that would lower the number of proposed Chicago school board members in the bill from 21 to 15. That’s still a huge increase from the seven city school board members in place now.
Additionally, senators signed off on a change to give an independent commission, as opposed to legislators, the authority to map Chicago school board districts.
All those changes must still be approved in the House. But Steve Brown, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman, said Friday that leaders in both chambers had discussed them and appear to be on the same page.
“I expect it to be supported when we reconvene,” Brown said of the elected school board legislation.
Top CPS officials have lobbied state legislators hard to treat Illinois’ largest school district just like all the others — except when it comes to how school board members are chosen. Their efforts in the Capitol have focused on funding and pension parity while testifying in committees against an elected board.
The Chicago Teachers Union, however, has heralded an elected school board as “rooted in democracy, not authoritarian rule from City Hall.”
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, an Emanuel ally, was not on board with the measure last year. But hours before the session deadline, Cullerton said he supported it because a school funding reform bill had been passed. That bill would help the Chicago Public Schools pull itself out of its financial hole, which totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I didn’t want to focus on governance issues when we don’t have any money,” Cullerton told reporters at the Capitol.
On Tuesday, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said that an “elected school won’t change the system, which right now is discriminating against our children and precipitating this crisis.”
Rep. Rob Martwick, D-Chicago, sponsored the House bill, despite opposition from CPS officials.
“CPS is right that they are horribly underfunded,” he said. “I also agree with them that the funding is more important than the governance [of the school board], but that doesn’t mean the governance isn’t important.”
In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the broken school system and began directly appointing a school board whose members previously were proffered by a grassroots nominating commission. Should elections become law, fourteen members would be tied to geographic districts and the president would be elected citywide.
Determining the 14 districts would fall to a new commission appointed by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. And just like the rest of Illinois’ 800-plus school districts, none of the city school board members would be paid, nor could any CPS employees or anyone working for an employer who contracts with Chicago’s school system.
Rauner said Friday he doubted the bill would make it to his desk: “My sense is it’s more for political spin. I don’t think it’s coming to my desk. I know the mayor is strongly opposed,” the governor said on WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.
When pushed for whether he’d sign the bill, he said “the devil’s in the detail.”
The governor would be reviewing the bill “to ensure that taxpayers are protected,” Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said in a statement.
Los Angeles, which elects its school board, has been held up as an example of what happens when big money gets involved. This spring’s school board races saw a record-breaking $15 million in spending. Charter school backers vastly outspent unions and won a majority of seats.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said he respected the governor’s concern “with regards to making sure that an elected school board isn’t dictated by special interest, whatever ideology they may have.”
“There are various special interest groups that are interested in who governs education, both conservative groups as well as progressive or liberal groups,” Raoul said.
Raoul, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, noted the bipartisan support in both chambers as a sign the governor will actually support it.
“I think if the governor wasn’t going to support it, it probably wouldn’t have happened, “Raoul said. “The things he’s not going to support don’t get that much support from the Republicans.”
And he downplayed the political nature of whether the bill hands Emanuel a loss.
“I don’t think it’s about Rahm,” Raoul said. “It’s about parents and community members that want to feel that they have a voice in governance, whether it’s Rahm or whomever would be elected mayor.”
Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins said the mayor’s focus for now is on finding a CPS funding fix.
“We are all for inclusiveness,” Collins said, adding that “the city has the largest elected body in the country governing our schools, the local school councils.
“But the focus right now on our part, we argue, and on everyone’s part is on ensuring that there’s adequate, fair state funding for education across the state. When it comes to education, that’s where our focus is.”