By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Voters in the nation’s third largest school district would, for the first time, be allowed to elect their own citywide school board under a bill that cleared the House on an overwhelming vote Thursday.
“Dozens of parent and neighborhood groups have been formed to improve educational opportunities for the school children of Chicago,” said Rep. Robert Martwick, a Chicago Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill. “They’ve been regularly dismissed and disrespected by the appointed board. And these groups have demanded elected accountability. They’ve demanded democracy. And that’s exactly what we are here to give them, a cornerstone of democracy.”
Beginning in 1872, the Chicago Public Schools was governed by a board whose members are appointed by the mayor.
More than a century later, in 1988, the General Assembly passed the Chicago School Reform Act that, among other things, provided for the election of “local school councils” that had authority to hire principals and approve budgets for individual schools. It also provided for the mayor to select board members from a list of candidates submitted by a separate nominating committee.
But those reforms were effectively repealed in 1995, and centralized control of the district was returned to a board controlled by the mayor.
“In 1995, the first act of the appointed school board was to skip a pension payment,” Martwick said. “They continued that for the next nine years, skipping a decade of pension payments and taking the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund from 104 percent funded to 50 percent where it sits today.”
“And that funding, that pension underfunding, has led to incredible budget pressures that take money out of the classroom, that take resources away from children, and will be borne and paid back by every taxpayer of the city of Chicago,” he added.
The district has also gone through a series of other changes, many of which have been controversial, including the closing of schools on the city’s south and west sides, which critics said disproportionately affected low-income and minority neighborhoods, a significant expansion of charter schools, and numerous teacher strikes, most recently in 2012.
Under the proposal, voters in the district would go to the polls to choose their first publicly-elected school board in the spring municipal elections in 2023. The board would consist of 20 members chosen from neighborhood-level districts and one board president elected districtwide.
Those members would serve a four-year term, and a second election would be held in 2027. After that, the General Assembly would be expected to review how the new system is working, and it would have to act by 2029 to renew or change the new structure, or else it would revert to a board appointed by the mayor.
Passage of the bill in the House came just two days after voters in Chicago elected a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who said during the campaign that she supported moving to a fully-elected school board, according to the education website Chalkbeat.org.
Martwick said he had not spoken with Lightfoot about the proposal. He said the provisions of the bill were drafted four years ago, long before Lightfoot announced her intention to run for mayor.
“I look forward to having productive discussions with her, and obviously with the first election not taking effect until 2023, there is time to revise this if there are concerns,” he said.
The bill, House Bill 2267, passed by a vote of 110-2. It now goes to the Senate.