Columns | Northwest Herald

Miller: Why did CTU oppose Senate’s Chicago school board plan?

Last Tuesday, Nov. 7, Chicago Teachers Union lobbyist Kurt Hilgendorf told the Illinois Senate Executive Committee that the union had only “one problem” with Senate President Don Harmon’s elected Chicago school board bill.

Hilgendorf praised much of the bill during his testimony. But the Chicago Teachers Union has claimed for years that it wants a fully elected school board, just like every other school district in the state. Right now, all board members are appointed by the mayor.

The “one concern” the union had about the legislation, Hilgendorf said, was that “only half of the city will vote,” because Harmon’s bill only elected half of the 20 district members and mandated that the mayor appoint the other half. The appointed members would serve for two years and then their districts would be put to the voters.

“That creates a disenfranchisement lawsuit risk,” Hilgendorf warned, adding that “maximum participation should be done in the first election, similar to how the Senate after a remap year, all members of the Senate are up.” In conclusion, the CTU lobbyist told the committee, “We think that all the voters in the city of Chicago should have the right to vote in that first-year election.”

Senate President Harmon rewrote his bill and used language similar to Hilgendorf’s when he explained his new measure to his chamber two days later. The bill would, as the CTU requested, elect all 20 members next year. Harmon explained that, after a period of staggered elections, the proposal adopted “the Senate model” of breaking up the 20 districts into “three classes,” of “terms that we in the Senate are elected to.” A third of the Senate’s members is elected for terms of two, four, and four years. Another third is elected for terms of four, two, and four years. And the final third is elected for terms of four, four, and two years.

The CTU, in other words, would get exactly what it said it wanted during the committee hearing two days earlier.

But the CTU adamantly refused to accept a win and continued supporting the House’s hybrid plan of electing only half the school board next year, with the other half appointed.

A few hours after Harmon passed his bill, CTU President Stacy Davis Gates wrote on the website formerly known as Twitter: “The real question is when did the senate president become a proponent of a fully elected [Chicago school board]? The ONLY reason we [have] a hybrid board until ‘26 is [because] of his refusal to pass legislation for a fully elected board. Why now? Ask him? It’s the MOST obvious question NOT being asked.”

Um, the most obvious answer is that the CTU asked for a fully elected board on Tuesday and warned a lawsuit could be filed if the language wasn’t changed to elect all 20 members. And, unlike the House, Harmon gave the CTU exactly what it publicly requested.

Near the end of a story earlier last week by Chicago Sun-Times chief political reporter Tina Sfondeles was this passage: “The CTU, which has always supported a fully elected board, prefers [state Rep. Ann Williams’ hybrid House plan], in part because it would give the union more time to choose candidates and raise campaign funds. The union would only have to find 10 candidates, as opposed to 20, under the House Democrats’ plan. And the union’s political action committee will have to play catch-up after contributing a hefty $2.46 million to Johnson’s mayoral campaign.”

In other words, why spend precious dollars on 10 extra elections if the mayor you elected will appoint your people for free?

Davis Gates also complained online that reporters asked Mayor Brandon Johnson, but not the CTU, about the union’s reasons for supporting the House’s hybrid bill instead of the fully elected Senate bill. I took her up on the offer and asked. As I write this, she hasn’t yet responded.

Harmon told reporters after he passed his bill that the legislature has until April 1 to come up with a solution, so sending both chambers home without a deal last week wasn’t the end of the world.

It did not go unnoticed, though, that House Speaker Chris Welch abruptly adjourned his chamber not long after passing his chamber’s CTU-backed hybrid bill in a way which couldn’t be amended by the Senate, forcing Harmon’s chamber into a take it or leave it position.

“None of this instills much confidence in the legislative process going forward,” noted one longtime legislative observer.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

Rich Miller

Rich Miller

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and