Democratic ward bosses to be asked to endorse elected school board bills Lightfoot opposes

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Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot (left) shakes hands with former mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as Rev. Jesse Jackson looks on during a press conference at Rainbow PUSH on the Wednesday morning after Lightfoot’s victory.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her former mayoral opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, had a public display of unity after Lightfoot’s election in 2019, but the two have sometimes been at odds since then. | Sun-Times file

“It definitely feels like Preckwinkle is trying to put the screws to Mayor Lightfoot to take action on an elected school board,” said Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), who doubles as the Southwest Side ward’s Democratic committeeman.

Democratic ward bosses will be asked Wednesday to endorse legislation vehemently opposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot — bills that would create an elected board to run Chicago Public Schools — in a move one committeeperson called an extension of party Chairman Toni Preckwinkle’s political feud with Lightfoot.

Lightfoot campaigned as a staunch proponent of an elected school board, only to repeatedly block what she calls an “unwieldy” bill that would triple the size of the board to 21 members, headed by an elected president.

Last month, she fueled speculation about whether she will ever deliver on that pivotal campaign promise by telling the New York Times that CPS would “never have opened without mayoral control.”

“It definitely feels like Preckwinkle is trying to put the screws to Mayor Lightfoot to take action on an elected school board — or at least show that [Cook County Board] President Preckwinkle is standing in solidarity with teachers,” said Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), who doubles as Democratic committeeperson in his Southwest Side ward.

“It’s highly unusual … to see this party get so involved in policy issues at the local level. … In nearly a decade in this group, I’ve seen us take votes on national matters or statewide matters. But to get so into the weeds at a local level — clearly there must be an ulterior motive.”

The party’s policy committee, chaired by 35th Ward Committeeperson Anthony Quezada, decided to take up the issue the day the bill passed out of a General Assembly committee — but not out of “some kind of petty rivalry,” party spokeswoman Delmarie Cobb said.

“It’s disheartening to think that, two years in, people are still thinking that this is about some kind of petty rivalry that’s still going on,” Cobb said. “This is about supporting what the voters of Cook County, and Chicago, specifically, have said they wanted, and that is an elected school board.”

Supporting such a board is the first issue the party plans to tackle so far, Cobb said, adding “it’s a new direction for the party in that they are going to have specific issues that they’re going to get behind and to advance.”

The Chicago Teachers Union endorsed Preckwinkle over Lightfoot in the April 2019 mayoral runoff and was one of Preckwinkle’s biggest financial supporters. The CTU has long championed an elected school board.

The mayor, who walloped Preckwinkle in the run-off, has predicted the high-stakes tension will continue until 2023 when she expects the union to field a mayoral candidate against her.

Sources said the CTU was delighted by the upcoming party vote, but did not ask Preckwinkle to initiate it.

Preckwinkle could not be reached. The mayor’s office had no immediate comment.

The resolution endorsing House Bill 2908 and Senate Bill 2497 was unanimously approved by the policy committee of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization on March 22. The House version of the bill made it out of committee the same day.

If the full Central Committee approves, the party will ratify the endorsement and issue statements articulating that support to House Speaker Chris Welch and Senate President Don Harmon.

“In recognition of Chicagoans’ overwhelming support for a ERSB [elected representative school board], having voted on two advisory referendums in the past 10 years with 90 percent in favor each time, the time to pass legislation for a Chicago [board] is long overdue,” policy committee chair Anthony Joel Quezada wrote in a “Dear Committee People” letter to his colleagues.

Shortly after Lightfoot took office, the entire school board resigned. That allowed Lightfoot to appoint an entirely new board with a heavy emphasis on parents, local school council members and other stakeholders.

At the time, the mayor claimed the new board would serve until an elected school board is seated.

But she also asked then-Senate President John Cullerton to put a brick on an elected school board bill that had sailed through the Illinois House. It would have created a 21-member elected board. Lightfoot claimed it would be virtually impossible for a board that size to get anything done.

“I don’t want to have another elected body where we’re gonna see outrageous amounts of money that need to be raised. That’s gonna exclude parent voices. … We’ve got to look at … the funding mechanisms so people don’t have to raise undue sums. That runs a risk of having undue influences shaping who gets on the board, who gets a state at the table, whose voices are heard,” she said then.

In addition to calling the 21-member board “unwieldy,” Lightfoot has cited a lack of parental involvement built into current proposals.

“I learned a lot through this recent experience with the Chicago Teachers Union. And particularly, hearing from parents who believe that their voices were locked out,” she said.

“Whatever the form of governance is that we move to, parents have to have a seat at the table of governance. And the proposals that I’ve seen so far fail spectacularly in that basic gating measure. I can’t agree to any kind of change in governance where parents are not front and center. Where the views and concerns of their children and students aren’t taken into consideration.”

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates responded by saying that an early version of the elected school board bill did allocate a specific number of seats to parents, but that provision “did not stand up to constitutional review and had to be removed.”

Davis Gates has accused Lightfoot of talking out of both sides of her mouth and making up excuses for failing to deliver on an important campaign promise.

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April 5, 2021 at 04:30PM

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