State lawmakers push for an elected school board

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Supporters of an elected CPS school board hope by March Chicago will be closer to having an elected school board.

Legislation sponsored by state Rep. La Shawn Ford to remove the power of Chicago’s mayor to appoint the Chicago Board of Education could be voted on by the Illinois House as early as next month, the Austin lawmaker says.

If approved by the Illinois Senate and signed by the governor, the law could take effect next year with an election of a new Chicago school board. It was in the 1990s, under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, that the legislature gave the mayor to sole power to appoint school board members – the only school district in the state that selects the board this way.

The proposal – House Bill 4268, which has 54 sponsors – would establish a 13-member school board, an increase from its current seven members, representing four newly drawn districts: the Southeast and Southwest sides, the North Region and West/Central region.

The bill’s sponsors include state Rep. Camille Lilly, who hosted a community meeting Nov.19 to discuss the issue.

The crowd of about 30 people were supportive of an elected school board; guest panel speakers included Valerie Leonard, a community organizer in North Lawndale and a member of the newly formed North Lawndale Community Coordination Council. While she’s an elected school board supporter, she has concerns about the current bill.

The proposed districts, she said, leaves the West Side under-represented. The West/Central Region combines the West Side with greater downtown Chicago. Each district would have three elected members except for the North Region, which would have one additional member.

Leonard said she opposes lumping Downtown and the West Side in a single district, and also opposes the North Side getting an extra member.

“We’ve gone so long already with the West Side not getting any representation. We don’t want to have an elected school board where we’re still under-represented.”

Lilly said she and other sponsors will reexamine how the district’s are drawn in the bill.

Leonard is also concerned that the mayor still has the power to appoint the board president under the proposed legislation. The board members themselves should chose their own president, she insists.

Wanda Hopkins, a member of the South Austin Coalition Community Council, said she’s been a 30-year advocate for a public Chicago school board. She, too, backs the legislation but is proposing some changes of her own.

Hopkins supports a one-rep-per-district model and opposes any political or ward boundaries being used. Instead, districts should align with the Chicago Public Schools’ already established school networks, she said.

CPS has 13 networks, each overseen by a chief-of-schools administrator, covering a cluster of schools in a handful of neighborhoods; the West Side is divided into the Austin/Belmont Craigin Network. Hopkins also supports having the board chose its own president.

Both she and Leonard also support bringing back the superintendent position to oversee Chicago schools versus the current CEO.

The current board makeup is mostly business people and lawyers, and the CEO post has been filed in recent years by individuals with no professional education background, Hopkins and Leonard said.

It was 1995 when the Illinois General Assembly gave then-Mayor Daley the power to appoint board members as part of a larger reform measure. But under the mayor’s control, CPS have not improved economically or academically, said Brandon Johnson, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union.

“Having an elected school board is about expanding democracy and having accountability,” he said.

Rep. Ford says it’s time to take that power away from the mayor and give it to the people. Ford and Lilly, however, said a newly created task force will explore the best model for a Chicago school board, either partially elected and partially appointed, or entirely elected.

Dwayne Truss, a community organizer and vice president of Raise Your Hand, an education watchdog group, stressed that a public school board is just one change needed. Education in the city, he said, needs to be in the hands of educators, not business people.

“The corporate community wanted to run the schools as corporations because they wanted those education dollars,” he said. “You created a system where schools are fighting for students in order to get that money.”


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