CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit was decidedly unfriendly Wednesday to claims that Chicago’s distinction as the only district in Illinois without an elected school board is racially discriminatory.
A lawsuit filed by former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and other Chicago residents in 2016 challenges 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.”
But a federal judge dismissed the case last year, finding no “fundamental right to vote in school board elections.”
Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, has been plagued by budget shortfalls, teacher strikes and corrupt officials, partly stemming from a 1995 change to the way the Chicago Board of Education’s members are chosen, according the complaint.
Since 1995, the mayor has had complete authority to hire and fire Chicago School Board members. Before then, the City Council had the power to approve or reject the mayor’s appointees, giving residents slightly more say over board appointees, but Chicago has never had an elected school board.
Chicago’s school district is the only one in the state without a board elected by residents.
This unique situation is motivated, in part, by racism, according to the residents’ lawsuit. Chicago is home to 45 percent of Illinois’ black population, 37 percent of its Latino population, and just 11 percent of white citizens.
“The heart of our argument is the disparity with other citizens of the state,” who all vote directly for members of their school boards, plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Geoghegan told a Seventh Circuit panel at oral arguments on Wednesday.
But Geoghegan faced a decidedly unfriendly panel of Republican appointees.
U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook told the attorney, “I don’t understand how there is a disparate impact.”
If voters of all races are excluded from voting for mayor, “How are blacks treated any differently than whites?” Easterbrook asked.
“The point is that the voting rights given to people are not equally distributed in this state,” Geoghegan explained.
He urged the judges to consider the historical context behind the 1995 change, which was made six years into Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 22-year tenure by “a white mayor who was expected to be there forever.”
Daley won the mayor’s office after Harold Washington, Chicago’s first and only black mayor, died in office of a heart attack. Washington faced serious racism from many white aldermen, who organized to block him from making any headway on his agenda, which included improving social services for minorities.
The city was then under a desegregation consent decree signed in 1980, which required CPS to create and maintain as many racially integrated schools as possible.
Geoghegan noted that the change allowed Daley to close hundreds of schools, primarily in black neighborhoods, to avoid compliance with the desegregation decree.
At this, U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Kanne rolled his eyes.
“Closing the schools is not discriminatory necessarily,” Kanne said.
“Not necessarily, but it was here,” Geoghegan shot back.
“This sounds like a complaint about how the school board is run,” Kanne responded.
Growing heated, Geoghegan told the panel that Chicago’s current regime is “tailor-made” to keep the school board unaccountable.
He did not mention Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s use of the same unilateral powers to launch the single largest round of school closures in American history, but it is impossible the judges were unaware of this controversy.
Mayor Emmanuel has closed over 50 schools since he took office, a decision that sparked protests and hunger strikes by parents, on top of the 86 schools closed under Daley from 2001 to 2009. Eighty-nine percent of these schools were overwhelmingly black.
Kathleen Pasulka-Brown argued Wednesday for the Chicago School Board, but was allowed to present her prepared remarks without significant interruption.
“All citizens of Chicago, black and white, are treated the same – none have the right to vote,” Pasulka-Brown told the panel.
U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Sykes nodded in agreement, saying, “No one has been disenfranchised, because no one was enfranchised in the first place.”
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.
The Seventh Circuit is expected to issue a ruling in the case within three months.