Elected Chicago School Board Bill passes overwhelmingly in Illinois House…Next?

Date: 
03/05/2016
RMartwick

Robert Martwick at the October rally

An elected Chicago School Board became one step closer to realty Thursday afternoon following an overwhelming vote of 110 to 4 for Bill HB0557 (originally HB 4268), in the Illinois House of Representatives. 

Robert Martwick, 19th District, Illinois House, who became the Bill's Chief Sponsor, started working with the Speaker's staff, legal staff and a coalition of grass roots groups last summer to produce the final rhetoric that members on both sides of the aisle agreed with, he explained. 

The Bill
Under the bill, the first Chicago Board of Education election would be held at the general primary election in 2018 as a nonpartisan election on a separate ballot. 

Members of the Board would be required to be a U.S. citizen and a registered voter with residency in the City and the electoral district for at least one year immediately preceding his or her election. The City would be divided into 20 electoral districts by the General Assembly. In the year following each decennial census, the General Assembly is to redistrict the electoral districts to reflect the results of the new census. 

Support on both sides of the aisle
"With 110 Republicans and Democrats supporting this Bill, it is a testament to the fact that everyone one is looking for reform," said Martwick. "When democracy is broken, the place to start is with better democracy. 

"This all started before 1995 when Richard M. Daley decided to get rid of any type of democracy for the school board." 

History
As described in Catalyst Chicago's* history time line:

1988
Corporate and community leaders lobby for the school reform bill in Springfield and the Illinois Legislature passes the Chicago School Reform Act. The act creates local school councils with key powers, including the selection of principals, the approval of school budgets and the approval of annual school improvement plans. 

With the passage of the act, an era of intense reform begins, and foundation donations to education increase dramatically. The law also expanded the Board of Education to 15 seats and created a School Board Nominating Commission with seats for 23 parents and community members and five members appointed by the mayor. 

1994
Mayor Daley rejects all School Board nominees proffered by the grassroots-based School Board Nominating Commission. 

Daley's actions
"It was Daley's actions that took pensions from being over funded to 10 years with no pension payments at all," explained Martwick. "Then there was Barbara Byrd-Bennett, closing 50 schools and adding charter schools. That was not what the people wanted but the Board did it because they don't care."

Efforts to change the law
While efforts to get an elected school board began in 2012, the issue was finally put before voters in some wards in February 2015 as a non-binding referendum. Chicago residents overwhelmingly voted for it. 

On Oct. 13, 2015, elected school board supporters rallied across the street from where former head of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Barbara Byrd-Bennett appeared and plead guilty on charges related to the $20 million no-bid contract with suburban Chicago SUPES Academy and Synes. 

At that rally, Martwick said, "On a day like today, if you listen very quietly, you will hear the sound of the last opponents of an elected school board changing their minds." 

Friday, he said to this reporter, "Want to know what motivates me is democracy. I can't stand it when government takes it away or people give it up! That is what leads to dictatorships! 

"CPS' history is a disaster." According to Martwick, some say that there have been gains in student achievement but, he says, student achievement nationally is greater. 

In Chicago, the reason student achievement is greater is because it is among the white students, he says. "There has been no gain to loss among minority students.

"That is unconscionable. Their schools are being starved, the kids are not getting help," he stated emphatically. 

Next steps
On Friday, the Bill moved to the Illinois Senate. On the record, John J. Cullerton became the Chief Illinois Senate sponsor and it had its first reading in the Senate. It is now waiting to be assigned to a Senate committee. 

Cullerton is known to be a staunch supporter of Mayor Rahm Emanuel who does not want to relinquish his control over the Board. On numerous occasions, Emanuel has stated that residents have input to the Board via the local school councils so no change is needed. 

According to Martwick, Illinois Senator Kwame Raoul, 13th District, will be taking the lead on the bill in the Senate. 

The Bill must be passed by the Illinois Senate then Governor Bruce Rauner before becoming law. 

AWilliams

Ann Williams

Illinois State Representative Ann M. Williams, 11th District, said that she is hopeful, optimistic and excited that because of the momentum of movement by residents and the House Republicans and Democrats, that the Bill will make it through the Illinois Senate. 

"Nothing is perfect, but so many people want to try this approach, that I think we should," said Williams. 

"I am absolutely committed to our neighborhood schools and am inspired every day by the dedicated parents, teachers and principals at CPS. But under the appointed school board, CPS has seen decades of financial mismanagement, including years of skipped pension payments, risky contract approvals and most recently, the passage of a budget underfunded by almost $500 million. We must find a way to do better. While an elected school board will not in and of itself get us out of the financial crisis we are in, it is clear that we need a change to move forward and restore faith in CPS.   

"The appointed school board is not working for our students and it is not working for Chicago," concluded Williams. 

Other Illinois State Representatives in our area whose names are on the Illinois House bill as supporters are Cynthia Soto (4th), Pamela Reaves-Harris (10th) and Will Guzzardi (39th). None of them responded to our request for comment.

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