The long and winding road to Chicago’s first-ever fully elected school board has an end in sight, as the Illinois House concurred with the state Senate this week in passing a bill that would create a 21-seat board and which Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he would sign. But passing the bill is one hurdle — creating a system of democracy and minimal bureaucracy that works for all is another. And significant unanswered questions remain, with the first crack at answering them coming in next fall’s veto session.
School board elections nationwide have been plagued by big-money campaigns that are typically inaccessible to the average parent or community member. This bill doesn’t address campaign finance. It isn’t clear whether Springfield has the political will to put protections in place since, in the view of some, creating contribution limits or other guardrails for Chicago’s school board elections could lead to calls for similar moves in City Council or statewide races. State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, the House sponsor of the elected school board bill, said in an interview Thursday that “we all want to see campaign finance reform for school board elections” but “I can’t promise you it’s going to be done by November.” Legislators could begin preliminary discussions on campaign finance as soon as next week, Ramirez said, and the goal would be nailing down an agreement at the latest by the time candidates begin campaigning in 2023.
The inclusion of non-citizen voters and candidates in Chicago’s school board elections remains one of the biggest issues that, on the surface, appears to have nearly universal support. Current Board of Education President Miguel del Valle, who said he supports an elected board, has ripped this bill for not guaranteeing non-citizen residents’ voting rights because he worries the issue might fall through the cracks in later legislation. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called it “unfathomable” that school board elections could exclude undocumented parents. The progressive backers of the bill said they agree non-citizens should be able to vote, and a bill has already been introduced to open all school board elections in Illinois to any voters over 18. But there are doubts whether enough legislators outside of Chicago will support the idea for their own districts. Asked if inclusion of the non-citizen voter language would have killed the elected school board, Ramirez said the decision not to include that provision was more in deference to the effort for statewide voter enfranchisement. Ramirez said she hopes to resolve the issue in the fall veto session. “My intention, and I know the intention of the Latino Legislative Caucus both in the House and Senate, is to make sure that by the time we have this fully elected school board, anyone 18 and over regardless of status will be voting in these elections,” Ramirez said. “That’s our number one duty after this bill has passed.”
Salaries and staffs for board members
An old version of the bill addressed board member salaries, but the version that’s headed to the governor’s desk doesn’t. In Los Angeles, those salaries have crept up into the six figures over time, causing concern about whether the school board’s money is being well-spent. Staff sizes have also ballooned to the point that the seven board members in L.A. have a larger combined staff than the district’s central office. Opponents of the bill have raised these issues but it isn’t clear whether either will be examined in future legislation.
One of Lightfoot’s main arguments against the bill has been the city’s financial support of CPS to the tune of a half-million dollars annually that she says may disappear if the district gets an elected board. The mayor has argued the city may no longer provide the same level of funding if it no longer has control over CPS. Jennie Huang Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer, said in an interview that good governance calls for the school system to take on those costs, otherwise “the new elected school board won’t be responsible to taxpayers.” Digging into the funds the mayor has referenced, some goes toward capital improvements, after-school programs, free and reduced lunch and other initiatives. Lightfoot has also given CPS tens of millions in TIF dollars. The bulk of City Hall’s financial support of the school district is its payments for non-teacher CPS employees into the Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund, Bennett said. That pension fund serves thousands of city employees, a little less than half of whom are CPS support staff and non-union employees. A new law pushed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel increased the city’s MEABF payments fivefold by 2022 to address the city’s longtime underfunding of pensions. In turn, that means the chunk paid for CPS employees also increases, pushing City Hall’s financial support of CPS to almost $650 million annually by 2024, Bennett said. But as those costs have ramped up over the past couple years, Lightfoot has already begun dumping some of the pension payments onto CPS — without an elected school board in place. When Lightfoot’s 2020 budget shifted $60 million in pension costs to the district, Bennett said it was time for the district to “pay its own fair share.” Advocates of the elected school board bill have pointed to state law — which places those pension obligations squarely on the city, not CPS — to say the city doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Rather than CPS losing out on that money because of an elected school board, state law currently would see City Hall no longer be able to use CPS to balance its budget. Ramirez called the red alarm about CPS finances “fear-mongering” and a late attempt to come up with reasons to kill the bill. “The city has this liability regardless,” Ramirez said. “This bill passing or not, this debt was beginning to incur more and more. I don’t see the city in any way walking away from its schools and the school district.” Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a government research group that has opposed the elected school board with many of the same arguments as Lightfoot, said the legislature should either revisit legislation and shift the pension obligations to the district or provide more state funding. “If the Illinois legislature doesn’t want the mayor to be in control of the Chicago Public Schools, it would start treating it like every other municipality,” Msall said, pointing out that no other city is required to pay for its school employees’ pensions. “I think it’s completely reasonable that the mayor and the City Council is going to say, ‘Why are we being asked to pay for a government you took away all our control, our responsibility, our oversight for?’”