Lawmakers Leave Springfield Without Finalizing Plan for Chicago’s Elected School Board
Lawmakers Leave Springfield Without Finalizing Plan for Chicago’s Elected School Board
Jul 23, 2024 2:35 PM

Chicagoans contemplating taking a shot at a seat on the city’s first elected school board will have to wait to make plans. State lawmakers left the capitol on Thursday without finalizing a plan to put in motion the 2021 law that seeks to diminish mayoral control over Chicago Public Schools.

Competing plans from the state Senate and House are cause of the delay.

With the Nov. 5, 2024, election a year out yet, there’s time.

Legislators gave themselves an April deadline to approve a map of school board districts and to outline the transition from an all-appointed board to all-elected board.

Still, waiting until April would be after the March 26 date that both chambers’ proposals list as the date on which candidates can begin to collect petition signatures that would put them on the 2024 ballot.

No matter what deal gets ironed out, Chicago voters will in 2024 begin to elect Chicago Board of Education members who will serve terms starting in January 2025.

Also under both plans, the mayor is able to appoint a school board president to serve a two-year term; come 2027, voters citywide will elect someone to that position.

The issue at hand is over how many of the other 20 school board members will be elected for the 2025-27 term, and how many will be appointed.

There’s a chance voters will get to elect the entire body (under House Bill 2233), as would be the case if Illinois Senate President Don Harmon and various community organizations have their way.

The alternative (Senate Bill 689, Senate Bill 2324) would have voters choosing 10 board members, with the mayor retaining the ability to appoint the other half.

That’s how leaders in the Illinois House want it, as well as the Chicago Teachers Union.

A hybrid board had been the plan in the original law — a setup pushed for by then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The idea is to phase in such a monumental change, said sponsoring state Rep. Ann Williams, a Chicago Democrat.

“Because starting a new school board for a district as big as Chicago is quite an endeavor, it’s going to bring with it several complexities,” Williams told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday. “It’s challenging to start from scratch a new entity.”

She cited disentangling pension systems and bonds that have to be dealt with during the transition period.

“Of course, there’s the personnel, there’s the legal teams, there are any number of employees — hundreds of thousands of employees — that we’re going to need to deal with,” Williams said.

The stepped approach, she said, will move to an elected board “in a way that ensures we don’t end up with a chaotic situation, the transition is smooth, we provide continuity for Chicago school children, families, personnel, administration, and all of us in the city have that interest at heart.”

But backers of Harmon’s route note that Williams’ alternative could be confusing to voters, and that it could diminish the power of minority groups to influence the election outcome given that it calls for nesting pairs of the carefully drawn 20 districts into a 10 supersized districts.

From a philosophical perspective, those who fought for years to align Chicago with every other Illinois school district in having an elected school board say the goal should be to meet the democratic objective of having a representative board as soon as possible.

“This I believe represents the best and most comprehensive proposal to date to bring an elected school board to Chicago, allowing it to join all the other school districts in the state of Illinois in having a school board elected by the people it serves,” Harmon said from the Senate floor.

While the CTU had initially campaigned for an all-elected board right away, the union this week reversed course and is lobbying for the hybrid approach.

“The timeline and structure of elections in the House proposal allow the entire city to vote and ensures a smooth transition to a fully elected school board in 2026,” the CTU said in a statement Wednesday night.

The union also strongly rebuked Harmon, saying that the union was part of “a decades-long struggle to win an elected representative school board for Chicago” and that “at the eleventh hour of that struggle, Senate President Don Harmon has put forward a surprise proposal that could ultimately delay and deny the democracy Chicago so desperately needs and deserves.”

Skeptics suspect CTU’s change of heart is due to who occupies the fifth floor of City Hall.

It’s no longer CTU antagonist Lori Lighfoot.

Mayor Brandon Johnson was a teacher, CTU member, and until winning election, a CTU organizer.

Johnson’s spokesman Ronnie Reese had no comment when pressed about the mayor’s preference.

Those associated with Johnson bring up the chaos they say could come with jumping to an all-elected board right away.

On Thursday, senators and representatives took public steps of good faith.

After the competing visions first surfaced earlier this week, each side found faults with mechanics of the other’s approach.

The Senate had what Harmon called “reservations” about the ethical provisions in Williams’ bill, while the House had “legitimate” concerns about how Harmon’s plan would have allowed someone in 2024 to win a four-year school board term without widespread support — for instance, if the top vote-getter in a crowded field won a seat with only a sliver of support.

Harmon and Williams each on Thursday put forward revised plans to address those peripheral issues, with the House passing a bill (Senate Bill 2324) that set out different conflict-of-interest prohibitions, and the Senate adopting an amended version of Harmon’s plan. It would have anyone who won a seat in 2024 serve for only two years; starting in 2026, candidates could have to make it out of a nonpartisan initial contest (similar to a primary) with the top two vote-getters facing off in the general election.

Each acquiesced after Harmon said he and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch had healthy conversations Thursday morning.

However, neither side gave in in regard to the heart of the chambers’ dispute — whether to move to an all-elected board in 2025 or to allow the mayor to retain control of the board until 2027.

Williams and Harmon each said they plan to have further conversations and hope for a resolution, but a compromise will require one party giving in on that key front.

Due to the dispute, the legislature also did not approve boundaries for the CPS board districts.

A district map had been a subject of controversy, with community organizations disappointed in the General Assembly’s first two drafts. Many (though not all) of those groups favor the third version, introduced on Halloween.

While the House and Senate are poised to move forward with that third map, the district boundaries are attached to the measures outlining the board election process, so are stalled until that moves forward.

General Assembly members left the statehouse on Thursday and aren’t expected to be back in session until mid-January.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter:@AmandaVinicky

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