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Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Chicagoans Fight for Elected School Board

CHICAGO (CN) — A group of Chicago residents led by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn demanded an elected board for the city's beleaguered school system, in two complaints filed in state and federal court.

Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, has been plagued by budget shortfalls, teacher strikes and corrupted officials, partly stemming from a 1995 change to the way the Chicago Board of Education's members are chosen, according to the residents.

Wednesday's lawsuits challenge the mayor's "exclusive and absolute right to select the members of the Chicago board, without the advice or consent of the city council or any other legislative body."

The complaints say that Chicago's school district is the only one in the state without a board elected by residents.

The board also has the ability to levy taxes without any legislative approval, adding up to over $2 billion a year for the past five years, something the plaintiffs claim it is not allowed to do since its members were not elected or approved by taxpayers in any way.

In 1988, under Harold Washington, the city's only black mayor to date, a law was passed that gave voters more control over selecting the school board, a boon for minority parents.

But according to the complaints, residents' control of their school system fell apart under Mayor Richard M. Daley, who in 1995 got an act passed giving him sole authority over the board.

The residents say it was a racially motivated move to appease mostly white property and business owners.

"The purpose of the 1995 Act was to limit the ability of minority race voters to determine how much of that property wealth can be taxed and used almost entirely for the education of minority race children," the 25-page federal complaint states.

Touted as a way to save the schools, in reality "the experiment in 'mayoral control' has been a failure or has failed to bring about the kind of improvement that might justify the 1995 Act's severe and destructive impact on the constitutional right to vote," the residents claim in state court.

"Through years of mismanagement by the appointed board, the Chicago public schools are on the verge of bankruptcy, and there is a looming catastrophe that imperils the right of Chicago children to a public education," the Cook County complaint states. "The students in Chicago public schools are without high quality resources — and in many cases without even books."

The district's budget was forecasted to be $1 billion short this year, and its sub-par bond ratings mean expensive loans. About $233 million needs to be borrowed to cover its capital budget and CPS expects to pay $35 million just in interest on its operating expense debt, according to the Chicago Tribune. Another $945 million from proposed bond sales would cover planned construction projects.

Avoiding payments into the teachers' pension fund for years, $676 million was finally paid by CPS this year, leaving the district with very little cash, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

In addition, "the management of Chicago public schools has been rife with corruption and the awarding of no-bid contracts and conflicts of interest," the plaintiffs say.

Last year, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former Mayor Rahm Emanuel-appointed board CEO, resigned after being accused of using her influence to steer a $20.5 million no-bid contract for principal training services to her former employer, SUPES Academy, in exchange for bribes.

Byrd-Bennett was indicted on mail and wire fraud charges by the U.S. Department of Justice and the board sued her in March to get its money back.

Forty-nine schools were shuttered in 2013 with several more in the following years amidst protests and hunger strikes by parents.

On Monday, CPS announced about 250 layoffs Monday due to low enrollment and the Chicago Teachers Union plans to strike Oct. 11 if an agreement isn't made on its contract. The teachers are asking for a stop to cuts in school funding.

The union did not immediately respond Friday to Courthouse News' requests for comment.

When asked for comment, Chicago's legal department referred Courthouse News to CPS.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool issued a statement on Wednesday's dual lawsuits, saying, "If Pat Quinn is looking for someone to blame for the fiscal crisis at CPS, he should look in the mirror. As governor, he cut CPS funding every single year he was in office, to the tune of nearly $200 million, and completely ignored the state's legal duty to help fund Chicago teacher pensions."

CPS added that its fiscal problems are well-known and "driven by the fact that the state of Illinois ranks at the bottom of states in funding education for students in poverty," echoing previous sentiment from Mayor Emanuel.

The plaintiffs say by not allowing Chicago residents to vote for its school-board members, the board is violating the equal protection and due process clauses in the Illinois and U.S. constitutions, as well as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

The Chicago Board of Education, the Illinois Board of Education and the state were all named as defendants in both lawsuits.

Sean Morales-Doyle of Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd. represents the plaintiffs in each complaint.

Meanwhile, a bill mandating an elected school board awaits changes in the state Senate after passing a House vote in March.

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