What’s Behind Mayor Johnson Backing the House’s Elected School Board Proposal

Mayor Johnson recently informed Illinois Senate president Don Harmon he would like to see 10 Chicago school board seats up for election this November.

By Hal Woods, Jessica Cañas | February 5, 2024 |

Late last Friday we learned Mayor Brandon Johnson informed Illinois Senate president Don Harmon he would like to see 10 Chicago school board seats up for election this November – which would give him the continued power to appoint 11 seats, including the Board President, through 2026.

Background: During the fall veto session, the Illinois House passed a measure more closely aligned with the 2021 law that created Chicago’s elected board.

  • The proposal would elect half of the 20 members in November, and the remaining 10 and a Board President would be appointed by the city’s mayor.

  • The Illinois Senate approved a competing plan that called for all 20 board members to be elected to two-year terms this November, with the mayor appointing the Board President.

Why it Matters: Finalizing the electoral process is the last hurdle before prospective candidates can officially launch their campaign to serve on Chicago’s first-ever elected school board.

  • The future CPS board is set to confront a formidable array of challenges in 2025, including a structural budget shortfall nearing $700 million, the end of a moratorium on school closures, and increasing disparities in academic outcomes among students.

  • Effective governance of CPS has massive implications for all who live and work in the city. As highlighted in our recently released Enrollment Solutions report, roughly 1 in 5 Chicagoans are enrolled in or employed by CPS.

What They’re Saying: With negotiations stalled and a looming April 1st deadline, Senate President Harmon stated last month he was “waiting for clear direction” from the Mayor, CPS, and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as to how to “best proceed.”

  • Mayor Johnson has now expressed his preference, writing Harmon last week that the 2021 school board legislation “clearly communicated…the timeline and structure of the initial elections” and that “[t]hose agreements should be honored to allow for the intended phased transition to a fully elected school board.”

  • Harmon heard Johnson loud and clear, saying he appreciated the mayor’s “direction on his preferred path forward.”

Reality Check: Prior to the passage of the elected school board law, the CTU and its allies had always advocated for all 21 seats to be elected simultaneously. The only champion for a phased-in, hybrid approach was then-mayor Lori Lightfoot.

  • Now in power, Mayor Johnson’s position has changed. It’s a stance shared by CTU and would undoubtedly help him maintain control of CPS through the end of his term.

  • If Johnson's 11 appointees vote in accordance with his priorities, their majority guarantees he’ll maintain the same power he wields over the current school board.

  • As mayoral appointees, they also won't have the same level of accountability to Chicago voters as their elected counterparts on the board.

Yes, and: CTU’s support for the House proposal is motivated by other political considerations, as well. As Sun-Times reporter Tina Sfondeles highlighted in a story last year:

  • “The CTU, which has always supported a fully elected board, prefers [Rep. Ann Williams’ hybrid House plan], in part because it would give the union more time to choose candidates and raise campaign funds. The union would only have to find 10 candidates, as opposed to 20, under the House Democrats’ plan. And the union’s political action committee will have to play catch-up after contributing a hefty $2.46 million to Johnson’s mayoral campaign.”

Zoom Out: Last month, Crain’s reporter Greg Hinz wrote how Chicago school board negotiations have been complicated by a high-stakes Democratic primary fight between Harmon and the CTU for control of a contested Senate seat.

  • Harmon has put $500,000 into the campaign of Senate ally Natalie Toro, who was appointed by Democratic committeemen last year to replace Cristina Pacione-Zayas on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

  • Toro faces CTU organizer Graciela Guzman in the March primary. The CTU has made the race a top priority, with allied organizations intensifying their ground game and substantial contributions from the union bolstering Guzman's campaign coffers.

K1C’s Take:

  • State and city power brokers are shaping the future governance of CPS – clearly sidelining the voices of parents, students, and the broader community.

  • Neither the Senate nor the House appears poised to listen to those who will be most directly impacted — much less engage in any effort to hear from historically underrepresented groups. We fear a reprise of the fall veto session, with bill amendments released with no advance notice and hastily scheduled same-day hearings and votes.

  • While Kids First Chicago’s parent-led Elected School Board Task Force has yet to take an official position on either the House or the Senate proposal, we are pleased that the racial and ethnic compositions of the school board districts established in both proposals are an improvement over what the legislature initially drafted.

  • But both bills fail to advance several priorities articulated by Kids First Chicago parents and supported by a majority of Chicago voters and families. We will not stop advocating for those important issues, including:
    • Establishing limits on campaign donations to candidates;

    • Providing school board members a salary or stipend for their service;

    • Guaranteeing CPS parents have fair representation on the board; and

    • Allowing all Chicago residents, regardless of immigration status, to vote in school board elections and serve on the elected school board.

What’s Next: The proverbial ball is now in Senator Harmon’s court.

  • Will he scrap his proposal and ask Senate Democrats to support the House bill, seemingly handing Johnson and CTU control over the school board until at least January 2027?

  • And will the state legislature provide any authentic or meaningful engagement opportunities to hear from stakeholders before they vote on the future of CPS governance?

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