Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker appoints 8 new state board members in near total sweep

Illinois’ new governor, J. B. Pritzker, on Monday appointed an almost entirely new state board of education, sweeping out all but one of the nine members appointed by his predecessor, Bruce Rauner.

There’s no word yet on who will replace Tony Smith, the state schools superintendent who stepped down at the end of January. 

The board’s new chairman will be Darren Reisberg, a lawyer who served as general counsel and deputy superintendent of the state board during the tenure of two Democratic governors and left in 2012 to work for the University of Chicago, where he is deputy provost.

The only state school board member from Rauner’s term who will keep her seat is Susan Morrison, a former social studies teacher who taught in the towns of Homer and Girard and has held many statewide positions, including director of gifted education. The state recently passed new legislation requiring every district in Illinois to offer broader access to gifted services, but the board has been criticized for not offering districts much guidance in how to do that.

The recommendations for new board appointees also include two educators with experience in early childhood and working with students with disabilities — two areas of focus for the administration. Cristina Pacione-Zayas is the policy director at the Erikson Institute, an early education graduate school and research center. Cynthia Latimer previously was chief officer of special populations in West Aurora School District 129 before serving as an assistant state superintendent.

As a philanthropist, Pritzker contributed millions to early childhood education, and on the campaign trail he said he’d pave a path to universal pre-kindergarten statewide if elected. But Illinois faces a $3 billion budget deficit, and while the new governor committed an additional $100 million to early education in his budget address last week, it won’t be enough to pay for universal pre-K. Meanwhile, an independent state monitor is overseeing reform of Chicago’s troubled special education program, which routine delayed and denied services to students.

The state’s newly appointed school board members must confront several other issues facing Illinois schools including a teacher shortage in early education and K-12 schools in rural areas, funding shortfalls, and compliance with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Among the other newly appointed members of the board:

  • Christine Benson spent nearly two decades as a superintendent at a high school and two small elementary districts southwest of Chicago.
  • Donna Simpson Leak, most recently the superintendent of Community Consolidated Schools District 168, oversaw the training of thousands of teachers in her years as the superintendent of several central Illinois school districts.
  • David Lett is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield and has been a principal, teacher, and superintendent.
  • Jane Quinlan heads the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education and formerly worked in teacher professional development.
  • Jacqueline Robbins spent 10 years as a regional director at the Illinois Education Association.

The appointments must still be confirmed by the Illinois Senate, according to the governor’s office. Only five of the nine-member state school board technically had terms that expired at the end of January, with the others slated to serve through January 2021. A spokeswoman from Pritzker’s office said that the other four Rauner-appointed members — all affiliated with the Republican Party or independents — were never confirmed by the Democratic-led legislature.
“Thus a new governor may withdraw those prior unconfirmed appointees and make new appointments, which is what the governor did today,” she said.

The state school board meets Tuesday in Springfield.