Springfield Dems bumble as school board filing looms
Analysis and Opinion by Russ Stewart
Always listen carefully to politicians when they say “trust me.” You – meaning the general public – absolutely, positively should know then that they are about to be fooled or already have been. When politicians say “I’m doing what’s best” for YOU and “future generations,” you absolutely, positively should know they’re doing what’s best for themselves. And when they say “I wouldn’t lie to you,” you better, as Samuel L Jackson said in “Jurassic Park,” “Hold onto your butts.”
And that will not change soon, if ever. Democratic super-majorities in the Illinois Senate (40D-19R) and House (78D-40R) are fumbling and bumbling with an elected Chicago school board bill, which was initially passed in 2021. They say they’ve dawdled for 3 years because they’re trying to get it right. That absolutely, positively means they are going to get it wrong. I’m just playing the odds here based on the past.
And by March 24 the two Democrats in Springfield who are in control — speaker Chris Welch and Senate president Don Harmon — absolutely, positively have to get it done because that’s when the 90-day nominating petition circulatory period begins.
There will 20 single-member districts with the boundaries already drawn (see copy of proposed map on page 4) but when and how they get filled remains unresolved. “Things keep changing,” said state Senator Rob Martwick (D-10), the bill’s sponsor. The election is Nov. 5, coincident with the presidential vote.
The original concept was that 10 non-partisan members would be elected in 2024 to a 4-year term, with the second 10 and the president appointed in 2024 by the mayor to a 2-year term with all on the ballot in 2026 for a 4-year term, all seated on Jan. 1, 2025. The president would run citywide. A plurality would be sufficient to win, meaning the highest vote-getter. In 2028 the process would switch to a majority/runoff system similar to Chicago’s mayor/aldermen. The problem is that Harmon doesn’t want it that way while Welch and the CTU adamantly do.
Harmon wants all 20 Members elected in 2024, with staggered 2/4-year terms, the president on the 2026 ballot and NO mayoral appointments. That quite understandably enrages Welch as well as the teacher’s union, of which Johnson was an “organizer” from 2011-23 and a teacher before that. The CTU bankrolled Johnson’s 2023 mayoral campaign, so they will dictate those 10 appointees and president. Quite obviously, those 11 appointees will have a head start for 2026. The mayor’s reaction to the situation has been “no comment.” Transparency is not his strong suit.
Just like the CPD’s elected Police District Councils (PDC), no current or former (within 5 years) CPS employee can be appointed or elected to the board. That means a bunch of politicians looking to use the job as a steppingstone, not any educators. The CBOE’s stated goal is that CPS “provide a world-class education” for city schoolchildren. When is that supposed to happen?
Then there’s the quandary about voters in 10 districts having “no voice” on the School Board (CSB) until 2027. That’s exactly what the CTU and “progressives” whined about for decades as White mayors appointed White members to oversee a CPS with an overwhelmingly minority student enrollment. Right now it’s 47 percent Latino, 36 percent Black, 11 percent White and 4 percent Asian. Harmon’s fix is to create just 10 districts for 2024 and then split them for 2026. That evoked a howl of outrage from Welch/CTU who reportedly claimed it would “dilute” the low Mexican-American voter turnout in some districts and allow a White member to win.
Under the map passed Nov. 1, 2023 there are 7 Black-majority (over 50 percent) districts, 6 Latino and 5 White, with two having a White plurality (under 50 percent) and a sizeable Latino minority of around 40 percent. Those are the 3rd District, centered in Rogers Park and West Rogers Park, and the 12th District, centered in Albany Park, Portage Park and Old Irving. So there will likely be 7 Whites.
According to the most recent county treasurer’s Chicago property tax bill, 53.4 percent of it goes to the CBOE, plus another 2.2 percent to the city colleges, plus another 2.1 percent to the school building fund.
Another unresolved issue is vacancy appointments. Does the mayor appoint or does the board? All mayoral appointments are subject to city council confirmation. A board appointment would not, unless mandated by law. And then there’s that burning issue (for politicians) of compensation. They definitely want to get that right. Under existing state law school board members serve part-time, usually attending one evening meeting per month (or fewer), and cannot be paid a salary with benefits (pension or medical).
A pending amendment by Martwick and state Representative Kam Buckner (D-26) makes compensation “optional.” Uh-oh. You know what’s coming. The bill allows the new board to decide if they want to get paid and how much. You know they’re not going to “Just Say No.” The figure being thrown around is $60,000, plus benefits. That’s at least $1.2 million annually, plus another 125K for benefits. And then there will be the “public service” scam. CSB members will demand an office and staff so as to “better serve” their constituents, with one for themselves at 1 N. Dearborn and one in the district. A whole new layer of useless patronage bureaucracy will be created, just like at the MWRD.
And the cost? Police District Council members get $500 per month to attend one meeting per month. At a potential 60K, and presuming one 3-hour meeting per month, plus extended or occasional special meetings, maybe a CSB member will devote 60 hours a year to CBOE and CPS “official business.” That comes to roughly $1,000-an hour. Although the 60K bonanza won’t occur until after Nov. 5, presuming the Martwick-Buckner amendment passes, the mere possibility – once known — will spur an eruption of lustful candidates.
A very arcane issue is whether elected school board members can run for president, or a local candidate can ALSO run for president, much like the county board back in the day. But the MOST CRITICAL issue is which districts get to elect in 2024 rather than in 2026. Take the far Northwest Side 2nd District, which is the entire 41st Ward, the 45th Ward north of Lawrence, the 38th Ward west of Harlem, and the 39th Ward north of Bryn Mawr to Devon. Can you imagine the mayor making the pick? Somebody like lawyer Paul Struebing, who got crushed by alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st) in 2023? The district is 80 percent White, fairly conservative and likely mostly pro-Trump. The obvious candidate (not appointee) could be former state Representative John D’Amico (D-15), the scion of the area’s Laurino dynasty who retired in 2021 after 17 years in Springfield and 31 years on the city’s Water Department payroll. At age 61, he can collect both pensions later this year at 62.
D’Amico is now the well-paid political director for Plumbers Union Local 130, and happens to have $294,723 on-hand in his dormant campaign account. The major players in the 2d District are aldermen Nick Sposato (38th), Jim Gardiner (45th) and Napolitano.
His 300K will cure that. D’Amico is, by today’s standards, a “conservative” Democrat – an oxymoron. If elected to the CSB he can keep his union job and take home over a quarter mil a year.
In the 12th District I think one possible Johnson appointee may be ex-alderman John Arena, who got beat by Gardiner in 2019 and “resigned” under the urging of Mayor Lori Lightfoot from his consolation city job a few months later. Johnson owes Martwick and his 38th Ward Dems organization big time. They were one of the first Northwest Side party groups to endorse him in the election (and later the runoff). Ex-Arena staffer Ed Bannon may also jump at the chance.
The legislature will determine the elect/appoint sequence in the coming weeks.
Chicago’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, is 2,746,388. The school age population, deemed those under age 18, is 20.7 percent of that, or about 570,000. With 20 CSB districts, the total adult/minor population in each will be about 140,000, or the equivalent of just shy of 3 wards, each with a 55,000 population. It takes a minimum of just 250 petition signatures to get on the Nov. 5 ballot and the circulatory period is March 26-June 24. There will be a plethora of needy/greedy/ambitious candidates, all acutely aware that it only takes a plurality to win. Each CSB district has an RV (registered voters) of 40-65 percent, and turnout in a presidential election will be in the 60-70 percent range.
Depending on the CSB district, with 8-10 candidates running, just 10-12,000 votes will get the winner a quarter mil pot-of-gold over the next 4 years.
The elected school board’s task is to approve the budget, authorize contracts for maintenance and for charter school operations (which will create a cluster-ya-know what for the CTU as they fend off pro-charter school candidates). The whole thing is a quagmire. Which is why everyone’s dragging their feet on this.