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North Chicago may transition back to an elected school board, state officials say. It’s unclear when.

Several students sit at a gray table to take an exam using bright, yellow pencils. The classroom background is white.

North Chicago School District 187 has been under state control for a decade. The state is considering transitioning the board to a locally elected school board after financial and academic gains.

Kali9 / Getty Images

A decade after being placed under state control, North Chicago School District 187 may go back to having a locally elected school board.

The Illinois state board of education says the suburban school district, which serves more than 3,000 students, has made enough progress academically and financially in recent years to justify considering lifting state oversight.

The district, which has a majority Latino student body and 81% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, was placed under state control in 2012.

The state changed how it measures student academic performance twice since taking over North Chicago’s schools, making it difficult to track improvements back to 2012. But since 2015, the percentage of students considered proficient in English and math has increased, according to data provided by the state. In 2015, just 12% of students were proficient in English, compared to 16% in 2019. In 2015, 9% of students met the bar in math, compared to 12% in 2019.     

State officials also said the North Chicago school district’s financial score went from 3.25 out of 4 in 2012 to an estimated 3.7 in 2021. 

North Chicago’s modest gains while under state control are rare. A national report from 2021 found little evidence that districts see a rise in test scores as a result of being taken over by the state. The report found that state control had slightly negative effects on students.

Before the state stepped in, North Chicago schools were riddled with troubles, including a quick turnover of superintendents

A former school board member and former school transportation director were also indicted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2011 and later convicted for getting more than $800,000 in kickbacks for school bus contracts over almost a decade before getting caught. Students were barely meeting or exceeding the state’s standards, putting the district on the state’s academic watch list for years. 

During the state board of education’s monthly meeting last week, state superintendent Carmen Ayala said she is open to transitioning the district to an elected school board by 2025. However, the decision will be made after the board completes community engagement meetings that have been running throughout the year. The next meeting will be Sept. 7.

North Chicago district parents, community members, and local politicians also think it’s time to move to an elected school board. At the state board meeting last week, North Chicagoans urged the district to move the process along.

Rayon Edwards, a North Chicago resident, said he understands why the district was taken over by the state, but thinks it’s time for an elected school board. 

“We’re tired of not having any say in who educates our kids and how it’s being done,” said Edwards. 

“We can no longer allow this to happen,” said Thomas Coleman, another community member. “Every other city surrounding us in the state of Illinois has an elected school board. We want the same thing for our community. It’s unfair.”

Later in the board meeting, Donna Leak, a member of the state school board who also serves as superintendent of Community Consolidated Schools District 168 in Chicago’s south suburbs, asked if the transition will happen next year or in 2025. 

Board members agreed that earlier could be a good option, but said the transition depends on evidence that the district can govern itself. If not, they said, a longer transition with additional support could be helpful.    

Board member Roger Eddy said state oversight was only supposed to be for a certain time period and that the board should consider moving forward with transitioning. 

“When folks have a passion to become self-governing and self-determinant of how their school is going to serve them,” said Eddy, “we should provide them an opportunity with whatever means we can while still giving them support for that little transition period.”                                                                                                                                            

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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