• Caroline Kubzansky
    APR 15, 2021

    UNLOCKED

    Elected School Board bill advances as Lightfoot’s counterproposal lies in wait

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    Sen. Robert Martwick and City Hall lobbyist Derek Blaida appear before the Senate Executive Committee to discuss SB2497.

    Illinois legislators advanced a bill Wednesday that would create an elected school board for Chicago, approving the measure in an 11-5 vote.

    Sen. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago) sponsored SB2497, which requires elections for a 21-member Chicago Board of Education, with 20 members representing education districts in Chicago plus one citywide president of the body. Currently, the Chicago Board of Education is composed of seven members appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

    Chicago Public Schools has had an appointed board for decades, and the Illinois General Assembly heightened then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s control of the board through the Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act in 1995.

    Martwick’s bill hit the Senate Executive committee Wednesday along with news that Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) tested positive for the coronavirus. Lightford, who is sponsoring a competing bill supported by Chicago Lightfoot that would create a “hybrid” school board with appointed and elected members, called in to the hearing over Zoom. As of Wednesday afternoon, that legislation was still being workshopped in the Legislative Reference Bureau, officials said.

    Lightfoot campaigned on installing an elected school board but has since backpedaled, saying any bill she supports must include a carveout to guarantee parent involvement.

    Related: Elected Chicago school board must include parents to get Lightfoot’s support: top city lobbyist

    Martwick introduced the bill by saying it aimed to "provide the people of the City of Chicago... with what everyone else enjoys" and noted the billions of dollars in annual tax money that fund education in Chicago. An elected school board, he argued, would give Chicagoans a say in how that tax money was spent.

    Despite working on a competing bill, Lightford also voted for Martwick’s bill after a significant back-and-forth. Both senators noted the elected school board measure has drifted in and out of the statehouse since 2015 with “at least five or six other Senate sponsors,” Lightford said. Martwick agreed, saying the bill had been subject to a significant amount  of “political gamesmanship.”

    Martwick championed elected school board legislation for years as a member of the House, but former Senate President John Cullerton never let it get a vote in the chamber. Martwick was appointed in 2019 to fill a vacancy left by former Sen. John Mulroe (D-Chicago).

    Lightford also urged Martwick on Wednesday to consider the impact of creating an elected school board on Chicago Public Schools’ 350,000 students.

    "There is so much that goes into this huge change that we'll be making," she said.

    Martwick said he was open to further discussion of the bill but didn’t understand “this notion that we can’t have democracy until we have perfect structure.”

    Adrian Segura, Chicago Public Schools’ deputy chief of family and community engagement, testified against the bill on the grounds that “an election does not guarantee equity,” saying bringing in an elected school board would “destabilize” the district in an already turbulent time.

    Other critics of the bill who testified Wednesday said they doubted whether students would be adequately represented by an elected board. Several witnesses referenced the majority Black and brown student body served by Chicago Public Schools and expressed concern that an elected board would not capture that diversity within its ranks.

    Other opponents of the measure focused on how the current bill does not provide for guaranteed parent participation on an elected school board. One witness, Claiborne Wade, said he “could not support the bill in its current state” and called for at least half of the school board to be composed of parents.

    Jitu Brown, the board president of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, appeared in support of the measure. He took issue with the way the school board discussion was appearing in Chicago media.

    "It is disingenuous for the media to characterize this as [the Chicago Teachers Union] versus the mayor," he said. In fact, he added with palpable frustration, community groups like the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization have been organizing for an elected school board since at least 2006.

    One proponent, Rosa Esquivel, said the current school board represents “the one percent, the rich and powerful, like banks. Our kids are just profit to them. We are sick and tired of that."

    The Chicago Teachers’ Union has vocally backed Martwick’s measure. House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) has also expressed his support for an elected school board, saying “I am a product of an elected school board.” Welch is a cosponsor on the House counterpart to Martwick’s proposal, HB2908.

    A spokesperson for Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) wrote in a statement late Wednesday that Harmon “supports an elected Chicago school board.”

    “We’ll see where these discussions go,” Harmon spokesperson John Patterson wrote. “The goal is to put a proposal on the governor's desk this session.”

    Earlier this month, the Cook County Democrats added their support to an elected school board measure, with several close allies of Lightfoot throwing their weight behind a resolution supporting HB2908.

    Related: Party leaders pile on support for elected school board legislation as Welch doubles down

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