By Meredith Francis and Emily Olsen
Lawmakers are no strangers to the waiting game, but the public is getting antsy.
In a packed education committee room in the Springfield state house, parents, students and Chicago community organizers mobilized Nov. 16 to make a fundamental change to the way the nation’s third-largest school district is led — electing a school board instead of having it selected for them.
Change isn’t coming soon. Groups, including Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Parents 4 Teachers and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, made the trip to Springfield to lobby for a bill that would establish an elected school board in Chicago, the only district in the state with a board appointed by the mayor. However, the bill stalled in the education committee with lawmakers calling for adjustments.
“You’ve got to step back and look at policy and procedure and make sure it’s right,” said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-4th), who, like many of the lawmakers on the 15-member senate committee, supports the idea of an elected school board.
The bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly in March, would create a 15-member representative board for Chicago’s nearly 400,000-student district, the third-largest in the nation. Those members would then select a superintendent instead of the mayor choosing the board and the district CEO, the current practice.
Lawmakers were concerned there isn’t enough time to implement such a major overhaul, such as drawing a map by January 2017 designating representative districts and holding the first election in March. Some lawmakers said they weren’t sure Chicagoans would want a suburban or Downstate legislator drawing the boundaries in their city.
“This is a huge change in what we presently see,” said state Sen. David S. Luechtefeld (R-58th), adding the current system allows for accountability because the mayor still has to answer to the public every four years.
Illinois Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-33rd) wants to support the bill but won’t while Chicago Public Schools battles budget headaches.
“This is a very bad time to do this,” McConnaughay said. “CPS is awash in red ink.”
But parents are anxious to get the bill passed. And state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-13th), who sponsored the bill, says an elected board will empower black and Latino Chicagoans to improve the condition of their schools.
Parents who showed up to lobby state officials said they feel Mayor Rahm Emanuel is responsible for a board that is out of touch with their communities. They point to the abrupt closing of 50 schools in 2013, largely in black and Latino neighborhoods, and budget cuts they feel they should be able to weigh in on.
Aiyanna Allen, a mother of a Lindblom Academy freshman, says she’s tired of instability in the district and wants a voice in her son’s education. She has moved him around to several schools to ensure he gets the best chance possible to get into a good college.
“I actually had to quit my full-time job to homeschool for seventh grade because of the lack of options and quality education where I live,” said Allen, who lives in Kenwood. “Every time you turn around and go into class, something has changed.”
Jeannette Taylor, a CPS parent, says parents in Bronzeville have been fighting for an elected school board for over 10 years, but she’s hopeful despite the bill’s delay.
“I’m happy it didn’t get killed, but I’m thinking, what other proof do you need that the board needs to be elected?” Taylor said. “It’s been a long time coming, so I’m just happy to see that it’s come to this point.”