Lightfoot: Senate Passage of Elected Chicago School Board Bill ‘Had Nothing to do With Democracy’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot slammed a vote by Illinois Senate legislators to approve a bill that would transform the Chicago Board of Education into an elected body, saying the decision “had nothing to do with democracy.”

The mayor, who has been critical of the current legislation in Springfield, expressed concern that it could have a “negative impact” on her ability to find the next CEO of Chicago Public Schools and said students and parents “don’t feel like they’ve been heard” by legislators about the bill.

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“There has to be accountability for ignoring the people,” Lightfoot said during a news conference Wednesday. “And it’s interesting that this is supposed to be about democracy, but what happened in Springfield had nothing to do with democracy. But democracy, mark my word, will prevail.”

Under the new bill — which the Senate passed Tuesday with 36 yeas, 15 nays and two members abstaining — the Chicago Board of Education would transition to a hybrid board in 2025 made of elected and appointed members, before fully transforming into an elected body by 2027.

The city would be divided into 10 separate electoral districts for the 2024 elections and into 20 districts for the 2026 elections. From January 2025 to January 2027, each district would be represented by one elected member serving a four-year term and one appointed member serving a two-year term.

After those two-year terms expire in January 2027, each district would be represented by one elected member. Another candidate would also run at-large in the 2026 elections to serve as board president.

“The problems that have been created by the mayoral-controlled board in the city of Chicago have been numerous and profound,” bill sponsor and state Sen. Rob Martwick, D-Chicago, told his fellow legislators Tuesday. “This is about creating elected accountability, just as every citizen in a democracy deserves.”

While Lightfoot called for a fully elected school board as a mayoral candidate in 2019, she has since begun pushing instead for a hybrid model. Chicago Public Schools currently remains the lone district in Illinois with a school board appointed by the mayor, though the push for an elected board has been growing in recent years.

Lightfoot and current members of the Board of Education are in the process of finding a replacement for CEO Janice Jackson, who is leaving the school district when her contract expires at the end of this month.

The mayor on Wednesday initially said she doesn’t know if the bill would have an impact on that search because the legislation has not yet been fully approved. It must go back before House legislators, and if passed there, would go to the desk of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

But Lightfoot then added the legislation “could have a negative impact” on the search process “if a CEO doesn’t believe that he or she is actually going to have the ability to make a meaningful difference in the quality of education and the lives of our children.”

She also took issue with a provision of the bill that would put a moratorium on school closures in Chicago until 2025, calling it a “mistake” and specifically citing a plan by parents in North Lawndale to close three elementary schools in that neighborhood and replace them with one new school.

Current board President Miguel del Valle and Sybil Madison, Chicago’s deputy mayor for education, took aim at the bill during committee meetings Tuesday, saying the approval process is being rushed and could lead to special interests dumping huge sums of money into specific board races, as has happened in Los Angeles board elections.

Lightfoot said the move to an elected board would be the “most consequential change in governance for the Chicago Public Schools,” adding that it “can’t be about the politics; it’s got to be about the people.”

“We don’t need that in Chicago,” she said of the “million dollar” board races in Los Angeles. “What is the route for actual parents who have skin in the game, of course because their students are part of the system, but who are members of the (local school councils)?”

Contact Matt Masterson: @ByMattMasterson[email protected] | (773) 509-5431

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