Janice Jackson supporters stump for Chicago schools chief as changes loom at City Hall

One day after a historic election propelled two black women into a runoff for Chicago mayor, the civic conversation quickly turned to how Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle each plan to distinguish herself on school policy — and whether either would keep homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson in the district’s top seat.

Anticipating that decision, several Jackson supporters seized Wednesday’s school board meeting as a platform to stump for the schools chief.

Related: Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson on her first year: ‘I don’t make decisions based on fear’

Whoever wins the April 2 mayoral runoff election between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will have the power to keep or replace Jackson. Both candidates have declined to say whether or not they would retain her. Jackson, a product of Chicago Public Schools who has emphasized transparency and equity, enjoys broad support among principals and educators.

That contrasts with her predecessor, a bureaucrat with no classroom experience. Forrest Claypool stepped down in December 2017 in an ethics scandal.

The dozen people who spoke at the school board meeting bore that out. Ald. Carrie Austin of the 34th Ward praised Jackson as a role model for students in the district — a homegrown leader “who started at the bottom and has worked her way to the top.”

“Make sure that you are looking at the depth of the CEO we have,” Austin told the board.

A parade of Jackson supporters followed.

A throng of South Side community members and leaders spoke in support of Janice Jackson at the Feb. 27 school board meeting. (Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat)

“We’re going to keep our CEO,” said Darlene Obanner-Suttle, a Local School Council member at Earle Stem Elementary School in West Englewood. “We don’t care about the elected school board.”

Related: Chicago enters historic mayoral runoff between Lori Lightfoot and teachers union candidate Toni Preckwinkle

Jackson, 41, grew up in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, and has two children attending Chicago Public Schools. She got her start teaching at South Shore High School, and is the first schools chief since 1995 to have taught at the district. She has held the top schools post for a little over a year.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the district’s $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village in July. (Elaine Chen)

Ebony Scott, Chicago site director of the Family Independence Initiative, a national anti-poverty organization, joined by members of Metropolitan Family Services, read from a proclamation declaring support for Jackson. Scott said Jackson was handed a tough job but approached it with “grace and style,” and possesses the compassion and assertiveness to get things done.

“You have been strategically positioned for purpose,” she read, addressing Jackson. “You understand the challenges our students face with limitations of economic barriers.”

Of course, when she takes over in the spring, the new mayor will face several other pressing education issues and tough decisions, from how to stem continuing enrollment drops and shrinking schools, to how to protect students amid a sexual assault crisis, to how to distribute limited funding across a vast district with many competing needs and a deep history of racial inequity.

Educators aren’t waiting until the new mayor is sworn in this May to press for answers.

Related: Chicago voting: some strategic, some from the gut

CTU President Jesse Sharkey speaks to reporters outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on Feb. 27. (Adeshina Emmanuel)

Before the board meeting, the Chicago Teachers Union publicly called on the district to address overcrowding and inadequate resources at neighborhood schools in neglected parts of the city. Union President Jesse Sharkey called on both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, whom his union endorsed, to add substance to their education plans and explain how they will make their promises come true.

“The top two vote getters are people who have lifted up public education and support a number of our key policies,” Sharkey said. “That said … the case to our membership has to be about what are the concrete things we’re actually going to see.”

For example, Sharkey said he was happy to hear Preckwinkle’s stance against closing schools, but he wants to hear her views on other critical issue facing the district.

For instance, “can we get a nurse in every school — every day,” he said.

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

Will the next mayor address these questions alongside Jackson or another schools chief? That’s impossible to say.

But whatever the outcome, the multi-year contract Jackson signed after she was promoted to her post last year comes with certain protections, courtesy of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: a six-month guarantee of her $260,000 salary and health benefits if she’s fired without cause before June 2021.

It’s called a golden parachute.

Use the tool below to compare Preckwinkle and Lightfoot’s answers to our January voters guide questionnaire.