Legislators discuss plan for elected school board
by AGNES CONNOLLY
Local legislators discussed bills that were recently approved by the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate that would create an elected Chicago Public Schools board instead of an appointed board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
House Bill 1774 passed out of the Illinois Senate by a 53-2 vote on May 31, the last day of the spring legislative session. The House passed its version by a 105-9 vote on May 25. House Bill 1774 must go back to the House for a concurrence vote to approve the changes made by the Senate before it can be taken to Governor Bruce Rauner. There is no official date on the concurrence vote.
The Senate bill opts for an elected school board, stripping the power to pick board members from the Chicago mayor and giving that power to Chicago voters. Currently, the Chicago School Board consists of seven members, who are appointed by the mayor. Former mayor Richard M. Daley, started the measure in 1995. Currently, Chicago is the only school district in Illinois that runs without an elected school board.
The Senate bill involves a board of fifteen members that will be elected every 4 years beginning in the 2023 consolidated election. The bill also calls for an independent commission to map out the Chicago school districts.
The House’s original bill included a board of 20 members with a president, instead of 15. The House also had lawmakers, not an independent commission, mapping out school board districts.
State Representative Robert Martwick (D-19), sponsor of House Bill 1774, said that the problems of CPS could be looked at as reasons to support the bill.
"If you look at the financial condition and scandals of CPS, all of those things beg for elected accountability. An elected school board will give us the rights we are supposed to have," Martwick said.
Martwick said elected school board members would be held to greater responsibility and accountability, as they would directly represent their districts and its people.
The question remains if Rauner will sign the bill. Rauner said WBEZ’s radio show, "Morning Shift," that the bill is "political spin" and finds it unlikely it will ever reach his desk.
Martwick said that the governor’s "nonsense statement" dismisses the great amount of work that has gone into the bill and the support it has gained from both Democrats and Republicans.
"The bill is two years in the making," said Martwick. "I’ve gone to Republican representatives and listened to their suggestions for what they’ve wanted in the bill. All of this has been constructed in a bipartisan fashion. I’ve had Republicans tell me that this is how a bill should be done."
Martwick also said that the governor’s decision might be political, suggesting that signing the bill could be seen as direct action done by the governor to take some power away from the mayor.
"It’s a good move for everybody and is positive for everyone," said Representative John D’Amico (D-15). D’Amico, a co-sponsor of the proposal, said the elected board would better represent the people instead of the mayor and would let others have a voice.
"The people want it," said state Senator John Mulroe (D-10), another co-sponsor of the bill. Mulroe said the elected board is a way that "makes sense" for communities to best represent their interests. In a statement, Mulroe said, "The legislation will ensure that parents, concerned citizens, and community activists have a chance to run for school board and influence the direction of CPS."
"Finally, CPS will join every other school district in Illinois in electing a school board," said state Senator Omar Aquino (D-2) in a news release. "Chicago taxpayers deserve more accountability from CPS leadership, which is more accountable to the mayor that the voters under an appointed school board. Over had of our property tax revenue goes to fund CPS. If you pay taxes to support the schools and you trust them to educate your children, you should absolutely have a voice in deciding who runs them."
Aquino emphasized that an elected school board would also better represent the demographics of CPS. For example, although Latinos are currently the largest demographic in CPS, 45 percent of the student body, only two members of the school board are Latino, he said.
"Looking at how Chicago is the only district without an elected school board, tells you something," said state Representative Greg Harris (D-13)." Harris, a strong supporter of the bill, said that other school districts are doing "fairly well" with their elected boards and the opportunity to choose leaders is working for others.
"With an elected board, people get to have a say in one of the most important institutions we may have," Harris said.
The Chicago Teachers Union pushed for the measure since February of 2015 and Chicago voters supported them in a nonbinding referendum, Harris said. The union continues to rally behind the idea today.
The idea of an elected school board can also be seen back to 2016 when a measure was passed in the House 110-4 but Senate never put it to a vote.
Those opposed to an elected school board argue that the handling of the CPS budget crisis overrules any further action towards its governance. CPS must pay $721 million to its employee pension fund by the end of June. Emanuel developed a short-term fix of borrowing $389 million.
Mulroe said it makes sense for the governor to sign the bill, arguing that even if the governor does veto it, his decision could be overridden as both the House and Senate support the legislation heavily.
However, D’Amico believes it is "hard to say" what Rauner will do. Harris also said he did not know if Rauner would sign.
As the bill waits to be taken back to the House, supporters continue to challenge how the current board is selected. Martwick said.
"A cornerstone of democracy is ‘no taxation without representation.’ People are paying taxes going toward public education but there is no one they chose making decisions about public education. People want to bring democracy to schools. We have no say in who is on the board. That’s not how democracy works," Martwick said.
"It’s important that Chicago stays on par with the state, not only with funding but also with democracy," said state Senator Kwame Raoul (D-13) in a statement. "We amended the legislation to make sure the legislature was not drawing districts but that redistricting was done by people within the city of Chicago.
State Senator Iris Martinez (D-20) said that members of the school board made decisions about the education of children.
"Decisions that can impact the rest of their lives. Surely their parents ought to have a say in who represents their children’s interests on that board. I am proud that we took action to ensure the Chicago school board answers to parents, not the mayor," she said in a statement.
State Representative Jaime Andrade Jr. (D-40) said in a statement:
"With CPS facing a serious budget crisis and potentially being forced to end the school year early, it’s obvious that the status quo is not working," he said. "The last few years we have seen the devastating results of mismanagement at CPS including teacher layoffs, increased class-sizes, and even school closures."