Saturday, April 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Chicagoans Lose Federal Court Bid for Elected School Board

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and other Chicago residents demanding an elected school board, finding no evidence of racially motivated discrimination in the way members are chosen.

CHICAGO (CN) – Though a state court complaint is still pending, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and other Chicago residents demanding an elected school board, finding no evidence of racially motivated discrimination in the way members are chosen.

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 lawsuits filed by Chicago residents.

Two October 2016 lawsuits filed in state and federal court challenged 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.”

U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo dismissed the federal action Monday, but the state court case is still pending.

The complaints claimed that Chicago’s school district is the only one in the state without a board elected by residents, and treating city residents different violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.

Bucklo noted, however, that there is “no fundamental right to vote in school board elections,” and many Illinois laws treat Chicago differently. She said it is rational for state lawmakers to treat the logistics of running a school district for half a million children differently than far smaller districts.

The school 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.

These claims “ignore[] the constraints that still exist under the current school code,” Bucklo said. “Indeed, the statute establishes a statutory cap on the tax rate and further provides that any increase in annual rates ‘must be submitted to the voters of such district at any general or special election.’”

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.

Residents’ control of their school system allegedly fell apart under Mayor Richard M. Daley, who in 1995 got an act passed giving him sole authority over the board.

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.

Residents point to the fact that Chicago schools are on the verge of bankruptcy. 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.

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

But Bucklo found no plausible inference of a discriminatory motive in the 1995 law.

“[Residents’] argument that the legislature enacted a ‘switch to an even less democratic’ process with the purpose of discriminating against African Americans is simply too speculative to support their claims,” Bucklo said.

Though the federal complaint has been dismissed, a hearing for the state lawsuit will be held Feb. 27. It will address residents’ motion for a preliminary injunction to have an election on April 4 while the lawsuit is pending, and the city’s motion to dismiss their claims.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.