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Chicago school board to shift when it meets to increase public participation

Nearly every seat in the board room is filled. At the podium is the Chicago Teachers Union president speaking. Behind a metal bar are Chicago Public Schools employees looking at their laptops.

At the first regular meeting of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s newly appointed school board, community members packed the board room. The board announced a number of changes to increase public participation.

Max Lubbers / Chalkbeat

Chicago’s Board of Education announced Wednesday that it will meet the last Thursday of the month going forward to avoid meeting on the same day as City Council. 

The board currently meets on the last Wednesday of each month.

The shift is one of a slew of changes made by Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new hand-picked school board that are meant to make meetings more accessible to the public. The board will also expand the number of public speakers and members said they intend to periodically host meetings in other neighborhoods.

The speaker slots will increase from 20 to 30 both at the agenda and regular monthly meetings. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the board allowed 60 public speakers to register

Officials will announce the schedules for meetings outside of The Loop office “at a future board meeting,” according to Samantha Hart, a spokesperson for CPS.

“We all want to create more opportunities for the public to access our meetings, provide input on decisions, and help shape a district and board that reflects the core values and beliefs of our communities,” Board President Jianan Shi said during the meeting. 

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez praised the changes, saying they will “help build trust with our communities.” 

Some advocates have long pushed for such changes in order to make meetings more accessible to working parents. 

Cassie Creswell, executive director of Illinois Families for Public Schools and a CPS parent in Hyde Park, said she’s hoping board meetings will be held outside of working hours, too. Many parents and teachers “are rarely going to be available” to attend weekday meetings unless they take a day off, Creswell said.  

She noted that this is a good time for the board to increase transparency.

“We have no idea who is going to be elected to the board once it’s fully elected, and I think making transparency and real engagement the norm and the standard the public can expect is really important,” she said.

The other changes include:

  • Allowing the board’s honorary student member to organize student roundtable discussions to “help ensure Board decisions are guided by students’ lived experiences.” Chalkbeat Chicago spoke to this year’s student member ahead of her inauguration.
  • Creating a Special Education Advisory Committee, led by board member Mary Fahey Hughes. She previously served as a parent liaison for special education for education advocacy group Raise Your Hand. The first meeting will be on Aug. 1 at 6 p.m. at Wilma Rudolph Learning Center. Five speakers and 100 observers can register in advance, according to the Chicago Board of Education website.
  • Making public any follow-up information that board members receive after the monthly agenda review committee.

The tone of the new board’s first regular meeting was in some ways different from the past. Nearly every seat in the board room was filled. Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates opened her comments with a laugh and said she was trying to hold back tears as she addressed the new board.

“When it’s this many CTU members and community members in a room, we are not usually here to be nice,” said Davis Gates. “We have an unbelievable responsibility before us. And I use the plural pronoun because if someone could do it by themselves, it would have already been done.”

But speakers still lined up to urge the school board to seriously consider a number of issues, including support for migrant students enrolling this fall; staffing more school nurses and psychologists; and inequities in neighborhood school locations.

Max Lubbers is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Max at mlubbers@chalkbeat.org.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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