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Can a compromise be reached on Chicago’s elected school board? Senate president ‘confident’

Lori Lightfoot speaks in front of a podium as appointed members of current school board stand behind her

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said that he’s still “confident” that a compromise will be reached that would open the door to some Chicago school board elections.

Adeshina Emmanuel/Chalkbeat

As a key bill passed a Senate committee Wednesday, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said that he’s still “confident” that a compromise will be reached that would open the door to Chicago school board elections.

As for what that compromise could be, Wednesday’s discussion in the Senate’s executive committee brought a heated debate between legislators.

Legislators were weighing a bill that would create a 21-person elected school board in Chicago by 2023. But the discussion spilled over to what a compromise measure could be. Sen. Kim Lightford, the Senate majority leader, raised concerns about the 21-person bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Robert Martwick. Lightford is sponsoring a countermeasure, backed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, that would create a 7-member board with a majority of the board appointed. 

“I still feel that your bill needs work. I think that the bill that I’ve filed on behalf of Mayor Lightfoot could also use some support and needs work,” said Lightford. “I think there could be a compromise bill that gets the protections of what our children in the classroom need.”

The committee voted to pass the bill to the Senate floor, with an agreement that a compromise will be reached, by 11-6. 

Martwick said Wednesday that he would continue to work toward a compromise. One potential compromise measure that has been floated would be a 21-person board with 10 elected members and 11 appointed ones.

“I will continue to work in good faith to the last hour of this General Assembly,” Martwick said. “However, if at the last hour we do not have a compromise, I will continue to advocate for the passage of my bill as it is today.”

Harmon, the Senate president, urged legislators to vote in favor of passing the bill in front of them, but said there was still time for compromise before the end of the session. 

“I appreciate very much the debate over what the terms of the conditions are,” he said. “I want to emphasize for the committee that I am confident that we will pass a compromise on the elected school board bill this General Assembly. I am equally confident that Senator Martwick will not be in the position of calling this bill without an amendment that comes back to this committee.”

There’s fresh urgency to the issue and, insiders say, a strong desire to reach some consensus in Springfield so legislators can focus on other bills. Fueling the decade-long campaigns around the bill, there are calls for more accountability and oversight as the federal government promises to deliver Chicago schools nearly $3 billion across three emergency stimulus efforts. There’s also the imminent departure of the district’s top leadership team — CEO Janice Jackson, and her deputies, LaTanya McDade and Arnie Rivera.

Supporters and opponents of the measure amplified their public campaigns this week, with some parent supporters from the group Raise Your Hand staging a rally outside Chicago’s Board of Education meeting Wednesday morning. The group Stand for Children Illinois, which does not support the 21-person bill but has urged compromise efforts, circulated polls showing that, across 1,700 voters across the state, a greater margin supported a hybrid measure.

Last week, the Civic Federation — a non-partisan government research organization that studies fiscal policy — dealt the 21-person bill a blow with a strongly worded opposition statement that called the potential board “too large to be effective.” The statement said the bill would “lead to expensive and divisive political campaigns funded by interest groups; allow the legislature to create gerrymandered electoral districts; not necessarily lead to improved educational outcomes; and create a potential financial disconnect between the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools.”

The group said that untangling the finances of the city and the school district, which have separate budgets but considerable overlap, could impact the school district’s budget. 

“If the Chicago Public Schools become a fully independent government,” the opposition paper said, “it is not clear that the City would or should be obligated to fund CPS pension, debt and other related costs.”

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