SPRINGFIELD — Less than 12 months before Chicago voters head to the polls to elect the city’s school board for the first time, Illinois lawmakers adjourned for the year Thursday without reaching an agreement on how to conduct the first round of balloting.
The House and Senate each approved separate plans for the election, but the House moved first and gaveled its session to a close before the Senate voted on its own plan. The Senate then declined to take up the House proposal, instead passing a competing plan proposed by Senate President Don Harmon before heading home for the year.
The Democratic-controlled legislature also left Springfield without taking action to preserve a controversial tax credit program for private school scholarships that will expire at the end of the year.
Legislators said they have reached agreement on a 20-district map for the elected Chicago school board that would create seven majority-Black districts, six majority-Latino districts, five majority-white districts and two in which no group has a majority.
Despite calling his proposal “the culmination of more than a decadelong effort to bring an elected, representative school board” to Chicago Public Schools during a brief debate Thursday on the Senate floor, Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, acknowledged that the debate over the issue is not over.
“The Senate’s work is never done, and I’m not so full of myself or the Senate to pretend that it is,” Harmon said after the 38-12 vote in favor of his plan. “We always are willing to entertain good ideas. But this represents the Senate’s marker for the best elected, representative school board bill that’s ever been presented.”
Harmon said there’s plenty of time to resolve the matter before their self-imposed April 1 deadline, which was pushed back from last July 1 after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement during their spring session.
The House plan, approved Wednesday on a 78-33 vote, more closely aligns with the 2021 law that created the elected board, with half of the 20 members elected next November and the remaining 10 and a board president appointed by Mayor Brandon Johnson. CPS would then transition to a fully elected board after the 2026 election.
Harmon, who originally pushed for the phased-in transition, surprised many proponents of an elected board this week when he proposed starting off with a fully elected board next year. Harmon, whose district includes a small portion of Chicago, said the change was driven by public testimony over the past several months.
Under Harmon’s plan, all 20 board members would be elected to two-year terms in November 2024 and the mayor would appoint the board president.
Two years later, all 20 seats would again be on the ballot, as would the citywide board president seat. But beginning in 2026, there would be a nonpartisan primary, from which the top two vote-getters for each position would advance to the general election.
Board members would be chosen for staggered two-year and four-year terms, and the entire board would be up for election again in 2032, after new boundaries are drawn to account for the results of the 2030 census.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a Hillside Democrat, did not respond to a question on why the House adjourned before reaching an agreement with the Senate.
Democratic state Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago, who sponsored the House measure, said she was encouraged that lawmakers appear to have settled the issues of the district boundaries and ethics provisions that will apply to board members. But she said there wasn’t enough time as the General Assembly’s fall session wound to a close to reach a consensus on how the elections will work.
“We were operating in the House under the assumption that we would be effectuating the elected school board with the structure prescribed in the 2021 law,” Williams said Thursday after each chamber approved its own proposal. “The idea of revisiting the structure and going to a fully elected board sooner is certainly a conversation that we could have but probably a difficult one to accomplish in just a day or so.”
Many supporters had hoped a final agreement would be reached this fall in order to give potential school board candidates more time to decide whether to run.
“I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to get it done because I think that the process would have been better with more time,” said Sen. Robert Martwick, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the 2021 legislation that created the elected board.
“But that’s democracy,” said Martwick, who voted in favor of Harmon’s plan. “And so I’m ready to get to work tomorrow, and I hope everybody else is too because the sooner we get this done, the better.”
Mayor Johnson, who advocated for an elected school board in his previous role as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, said Thursday that while he’s eager for the change to take effect, it needs to be done “with some care and sensitivity and some thoughtfulness.”
“This is going to be a tremendous adjustment for the people of Chicago, and adjusting in a way that provides competence in a new body of government, that is something that we have to take into real serious consideration,” Johnson said, indicating his support for a phasing in the transition. “So, again, the ultimate goal we desire is that fully elected school board. We also want to make sure that that transition is done in a way that’s sensitive to the very people who are expecting it to work.”
An extension for the controversial Invest in Kids scholarship program never got called to a vote, meaning it will expire Dec. 31. The program has broad Republican support and GOP leaders in the House and Senate, vowed to keep up their push to preserve the program.
Invest in Kids was created under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and has divided Democrats, some of whom argue it doesn’t do enough to help children from low-income families.
Senate GOP leader John Curran of Downers Grove criticized Democrats for ending the fall session “without so much as a hearing to give a voice to the hundreds of Illinois students and parents who rallied at the Capitol for months begging Illinois legislators to extend the low-income scholarship program.”
“Their abandonment of these Illinois children in need in favor of ideology and special interests will continue to stain this body for many years to come,” Curran said in a statement.
Also on Thursday, there was strong bipartisan support for a measure that would boost the pensions for some Chicago police officers. The measure is heading to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk after passing by votes of 94-8 in the House and 47-0 in the Senate.
Under the proposal, cost-of-living increases would be on par with the Chicago firefighters’ pensions, which were adjusted through a measure passed by the legislature in 2021.
That law did away with a pension provision stipulating that Chicago firefighters born on or before Jan. 1, 1966, would receive an annual 1.5% cost-of-living adjustment to their pensions, with a lifetime limit of 30%. Firefighters born before that date had gotten a 3% annual increase. The law removed the birth date restriction and eliminated the 30% cap.
Before the 2021 law was passed, Chicago officials came to the legislature every few years to push the cutoff birth date forward to allow more firefighters to get their full increases — while continuing to base the city’s pension contributions on the smaller amount of money that would be needed if the old restrictions remained in place. That has led to perpetual underfunding of the pension system, said Martwick, who sponsored the pension legislation for both the firefighters and the police.
Since 1967, Chicago police officers have been paying 0.5% from each paycheck into cost-of-living benefits for their pensions, according to the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. The new legislation would allow about 1,500 retired Chicago police officers to receive these benefits immediately, and roughly 6,000 will be entitled to the benefits in the future, said Rep. Justin Slaughter, a Chicago Democrat.
The plan, which has the backing of Johnson’s administration, would cost the city as much as $70 million per year, Slaughter said.
Earlier this week, Slaughter acknowledged his unlikely collaboration on the issue with the FOP, which staunchly opposed the sweeping 2021 criminal justice overhaul known as the SAFE-T Act, which Slaughter also sponsored.
“It’s important that you have a collaborative effort, a collaborative environment to make sure that you can get to the next steps in terms of implementation,” Slaughter said of his common ground with the FOP. “We want to build that mutual respect that it takes to work together.”
Separately, a 2018 law that increased minimum prison sentences for repeat gun possession offenders is now set to expire at the end of the year after the House refused to take up a Senate proposal to extend it.
The Senate voted 42-12 on Wednesday to extend the law another year, with the 12 “no” votes all coming from Democratic senators, most of whom represent districts that cover all or parts of Chicago. The main sponsor of the extension was Sen. Patrick Joyce, a Democrat from Reddick in Kankakee County.
The 2018 law raised the minimum prison sentence for certain illegal gun possession crimes for repeat offenders from three years to either six or seven years, also giving judges latitude to give an explanation if they chose to depart from the guidelines. But now, with the law expiring, the penalties will revert to how they were prior to 2018.
The law was pushed by former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration after more than 770 people were slain in the city in 2016, but Johnson has opposed an extension. Crime statistics provide no clear evidence that the law has had any impact in reducing gun violence, which was part of the reason some Democrats opposed extending the law another year.
Tribune reporters Alice Yin and A.D. Quig contributed.