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Feeling betrayed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, supporters of an elected school board for Chicago Public Schools say ‘this fight is not going to go away anytime soon’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/3/2021 Hannah Leone, Gregory Pratt and Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune
a group of people holding a sign: Elizabeth Greer, center, joined about two dozen protesters to rally outside City Hall Wednesday to call out Mayor Lori Lightfoot for not backing an elected school board. © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Elizabeth Greer, center, joined about two dozen protesters to rally outside City Hall Wednesday to call out Mayor Lori Lightfoot for not backing an elected school board.

Chicago Public Schools parent Jeff Jenkins joined the fight for an elected school board when his son was in kindergarten. Now that son is a sophomore in high school and two inches taller than Jenkins — and the Chicago Board of Education is still appointed by the mayor.

“The road has been far too long,” Jenkins said Wednesday morning outside City Hall, surrounded by like-minded activists holding signs advocating for an elected board.

Tara Stamps, a CPS educator and parent, said it seems democracy has become a four-letter word.

“The idea that people (don’t) have voice and agency in what happens to their school system, what happens to their children, is mind-blowing to me, but what I find particularly disturbing is that there are 892 districts in the state of Illinois,” Stamps said. “Chicago is the only on without an elected representative school board.”

With the start of the Illinois General Assembly’s new session, state Sen. Robert Martwick, a Northwest Side Democrat, is renewing his push for a fully elected Chicago school board. Both chambers of the legislature have passed measures dealing with the issue in recent years, but the same piece of legislation has yet to clear both the House and Senate.

Prior to her own election as mayor, Lori Lightfoot highlighted her support of an elected school board in her campaign’s first televised advertisement. She also regularly expressed her support for an elected board during candidates forums, while other rivals said they support hybrid models or oppose any elected members.

When Lightfoot announced a hand-picked new school board shortly after taking office in 2019, the mayor said she still supported the elected school board she backed in her campaign, but that it would require a change in state law. Yet she opposed a bill passed in the House that year that would have created a 21-member elected board, calling the proposal “unwieldy.” Education activists and community groups have since questioned Lightfoot’s commitment.

Jenkins said he voted and even campaigned for Lightfoot, in part because of her strong advocacy for an elected school board, calling it one of the most important issues in public education.

“Her current opposition to an elected school board makes me very angry and makes me very sad,” Jenkins said. “... Stalling the bill, unwillingness to work toward positive solutions to a bill she is unhappy with, that amounts to opposition to an elected school board.”

Moises Moreno, executive director of Pilsen Alliance, said the mayor is committing political sabotage.

“This fight is not going to go away any time soon, until we have democracy in our schools,” Moreno said.

Asked about her opposition to Martwick’s plan and whether she still supports an elected school board, Lightfoot on Wednesday said the recent dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union over reopening schools underscored the importance of parental involvement.

“Myself, (CPS CEO Janice) Jackson, and other CPS executives heard over and over again from parents and members of the public that they felt like they were not being heard, and we can’t move forward with any kind of new governing structure that doesn’t genuinely provide a pathway for parents that have a seat at the table,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor criticized Martwick’s latest bill, saying it didn’t “allow for people who are undocumented in our city to have a seat at the table.”

“We have a substantial portion of CPS students and parents who are themselves undocumented, and to basically exclude them from having kind of any voice on a new form of governance for the Chicago Public Schools doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Lightfoot, who has not appointed any undocumented people to the Chicago Board of Education.

The mayor also said she is in the process “of listening to a lot of different stakeholders across the city to engage them in a conversation about what governance should look like.”

“What we don’t want is what we’ve seen from other locations across the country, for example, in California, where a single school board race was a million-dollar race. That excluded lots of voices, and it will exclude if that’s the kind of model and dynamic that is set up here,” Lightfoot said. “So we’ve got to be very thoughtful and careful about what form of governance that we push forward. And we’ve got, as I said, and I’ve been very clear on this, parents have to have a genuine pathway to sit on that school board.”

Martwick said he agrees with Lightfoot that the idea is about giving a greater voice to parents.

“Right now, what I can assure you is that parents have no say, because the appointed board doesn’t answer to the parents of CPS students,” Martwick said. “It only answers to the mayor.”

His proposal, similar to one approved by the House in 2019 when he was a state representative, would create a 20-member board elected from geographic districts and a board president elected citywide, beginning with local elections in 2023.

Lightfoot also is correct in her assessment that the debate over an elected board is about power, Martwick said.

“It’s about whether the citizens of Chicago have the power to determine control of the future of their school system,” he said.

As for giving a voice to families who are in the country without legal permission, Martwick said his plan would create a greater role for Chicago’s Local School Councils to interact with their local school board member. Non-citizens are allowed to vote for and serve on Local School Councils.

The Chicago Teachers Union issued a statement in response to Lightfoot’s comments and what it called her “broken promise” to support an elected board.

“The mayor’s claim that it is important for parents to have ‘a seat at the table’ regarding proposals for an elected representative school board may sound rational, but contradicts the fact that it has been Chicago public school parents who have led the charge for an elected board in Chicago for the past two decades,” according to the CTU statement.

The union claimed that if Lightfoot is sincere about parent voice, she would collaborate with the City Council on ways to finance school board elections so that “big-money interests” did not have sway and those elected truly represented the city.

“That is, unless the only true criteria the mayor cares about are the criteria that leave all the power in her hands,” the union statement concluded.

Virtually everywhere in Illinois except Chicago, voters will elect representatives to their local school boards on April 6.


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