Between barbs, Chicago mayoral hopefuls Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot talk schools in first televised runoff debate

Schools took center stage at the first televised runoff debate between Chicago mayoral hopefuls Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot Thursday night, with each candidate pledging to steer more money and attention to the city’s flailing neighborhood schools.

Even as the candidates sparred over who was the political “insider” in the race — Preckwinkle is the president of the county board and the top boss of the Cook County Democratic Party, while Lightfoot worked her way up to equity partner at a powerful Chicago corporate law firm — they essentially agreed on broad-strokes questions about empty buildings, pensions, and union negotiations.

The exception was one question about whether to retain Chicago Public Schools chief Janice Jackson. Preckwinkle has said she’d retain her, while Lightfoot has said she’d wait and see — a position she explained in the conversation moderated by NBC5’s political editor, Carol Marin.

“I think there’s a time and place to talk about who should stay,” Lightfoot said. “Here’s what I know about CPS: We’ve had five CEOs in the past seven years. No organization can be successful with that level of volatility at the top.”

“I am really focused on making sure that we have a stable system, that we’re focused on rebuilding our neighborhood schools. There are questions that I have certainly about her leadership but, frankly, I’m not measuring the drapes before I get the office.”

The face-off, held in the NBC Tower in downtown Chicago, spanned several other topics, including police reform, affordable housing set-asides, economic development, and sanctuary city status. But schools policy kept surfacing as each candidate argued why she’d be the best choice for helping spread the wealth generated downtown to struggling neighborhoods that have experienced violence, foreclosure, and school closings.

“We cannot have a strong city without strong neighborhoods and without strong neighborhood schools,” Preckwinkle said.

Here’s what else they said about other key education issues:

On union negotiations and whether they’d agree to the 5 percent raises that the teachers’ union is seeking in its next contract:

Lightfoot: As a kid who went to public schools, I think we’ve got to be fair to our teachers. But the contract has to be viewed in the context of what are we doing to be fair to our students. What are we doing to lift the quality of our neighborhood schools? What are we doing to make sure we have the resources to put librarians, nurses and counselors back in our schools — it has to be part of the conversation.

Preckwinkle: I think it’s a big mistake to start talking about your negotiating strategy at this point in time. I’m very proud of the fact that I have support of the [teachers’ union] but as mayor of the city of Chicago, it’s my job to do the best for all of our citizens and that’s negotiating fair and reasonable contracts.

On whether they have concerns that an elected school board would erode the mayor’s “skin in the game,” particularly when it comes to tough pension decisions:

Preckwinkle: It’s important to understand that we are the only school district in the state that does not have an elected school board. I’ve said it’s unfair we pay for teachers pensions across the state and then for our own teachers. There’s no equity there, no justice, and likewise there’s no justice that every other school district in the state has an elected school board and we don’t.

Lightfoot: My mother was on an elected school board in the town that I grew up in, I watched as parents called our house at dinnertime, talked to her in the grocery store to really make sure they had a voice — an advocate on the school board. So I support parent representation on an elected school board and frankly as mayor of this city, if you can’t form a relationship with another elected body, then shame on you. You’ve got to build relationships, you’ve got to build partnership and I feel fully comfortable with an elected school board.

On what to do with 38 vacant schools that were closed under Rahm Emanuel and have not been sold or otherwise repurposed:

Preckwinkle: It’s important that we find alternate uses for these buildings because when you close these schools it’s a very public withdrawal of resources from a community. Young people have to walk by that school every day as they walk to a school outside their neighborhood. Adults drive by a vacant school and they feel that same loss, so it’s really important that we make it a priority.

Lightfoot: What we have to do is look at neighborhoods in which those schools exist, and engage the community in a conversation about how to make those schools community assets.

The discussion was hosted by NBC 5 and Telemundo Chicago, and cosponsored by the Union League Club of Chicago and the Chicago Urban League. You can find a recap here.