Chicago elected school board bill clears another big hurdle, despite lingering questions

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Some Illinois legislators said they supported the measure but with a caveat: that General Assembly continue to fine-tune the bill in a fall veto session. | Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat

A compromise measure that would establish school board elections in Chicago for the first time in the city’s history has cleared another key hurdle, increasing the likelihood that it will go to the Illinois governor to decide.

Despite some legislators’ concerns that the bill is unfinished and lacks clarity on some critical details, the amended bill passed the House elections committee Wednesday with a 10-7 vote. It now goes to the House floor for a vote; a Democratic majority there means it will likely pass.

The bill would phase in elections for a 21-person school board beginning in 2024, with some members elected and some appointed by the mayor. The board would be fully elected by 2027. Chicago’s current school board has seven members appointed by the mayor.

The final step would be the signature of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat who has said he supports an elected board but has not specifically addressed the 21-person bill.

If Pritzker signs the bill, he would do so over the objection of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had sharp criticism of the bill earlier this week and called it “deeply flawed.”

Apparent Wednesday in a House elections committee meeting was that some legislators believe much work remains to be done should the bill become law. A few supporters said they voted “yes” on the measure with a major caveat: that the General Assembly would continue to fine-tune the bill in the fall veto session. Lingering questions include how to untangle about $500 million in overlapped city and school district finances, whether to set campaign finance rules for elections, and how to divide the city into representative districts.

“There’s some cleanup language we would need to be doing,” said Rep. Delia Ramirez, who sponsored the measure in the House and whose district spans several city neighborhoods and some of the western suburbs.

One detail that does not appear up for ongoing debate is the size of the board. The bill would establish the largest school board of any major city in the country. Currently, the largest urban district school board is New York City’s 13-person board; it is appointed.

Ramirez said she could not pledge that she’d support any revision in the number of school board seats. The size of the board has been one of the prevailing criticisms.

Chicago’s Chief Financial Officer, Jennie Huang Bennett, testified Wednesday against the bill, arguing that untangling the intertwined finances between Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago required more scrutiny.

“Trying to push through this legislation now is leaving this very important question unresolved,” said Bennett, who formerly worked in the budget office of Chicago Public Schools. The biggest city contributions to the school district’s finances are pension payments for non-teaching staff, but the city also contributes to schools annually tens of millions a year from its special taxing districts — known as tax-increment financing districts or TIFs — and picks up other costs. The school district anticipates nearly $97 million this next school year in those special taxes, for example.

More broadly, the promise of future revisions on major issues also troubled some legislators.

“I have some concerns about some major components that haven’t been worked through,” said Rep. Robert Rita, a Democrat who represents parts of Chicago and some adjacent southern suburbs. “Usually a trailer bill would come back with some small fixes, but we’re identifying some major stuff.”

Rita voted in favor of the bill passing out of committee.

Ramirez countered that some of the particular concerns raised about the bill around city finances had only surfaced in the past few weeks and should not derail the progress of an effort that had spanned years. “We’ve been talking about this a long time. At what point is it that we finally have an elected school board?”

Lightfoot pushed partway through the session for a smaller, hybrid board with a combination of elected and appointed members.

Chicago is the only school district in Illinois with an appointed school board.

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June 16, 2021 at 01:36PM

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