‘It’s our last meeting’: New mayor Lori Lightfoot moves to disband Chicago’s school board, setting up major shift

Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, said Wednesday she is disbanding the city’s seven-member school board, moving quickly to set up what is likely to be a dramatic transformation of how the 361,000-student school district is governed.

Lightfoot, who was sworn in Monday, campaigned on a promise to support a switch from a school board appointed by the mayor to one selected by the public.

Speaking to reporters at City Hall Wednesday afternoon, she said none of the current board members would remain in place. But since the move to an elected body requires legislative approval, Lightfoot said she would appoint an interim board and would announce the names of those selected soon.

During this period, she said, “we want to make sure we are doing what we could to bring diversity into the process.”

As for selecting interim replacement, Lightfoot said, “My first priority is placing an emphasis on people who have children in the system or have themselves been a part of the CPS system, whether as administrators, teachers or principals.”

News that the school board would be disbanded came just prior, at the end of a four-hour and otherwise pro-forma school board meeting, when the board’s president, Frank Clark, announced: “It’s our last meeting. Really truly thank you, it’s been an honor.”

The seven board members, all appointed at some point over the past eight years by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, oversaw and, in many cases, supported some of the most landmark changes in Emanuel’s tenure, including a 20-percentage point climb in graduation rates and the nation’s largest single round of school closings.

Schools chief Janice Jackson thanked Clark for his service, and said working alongside the board had made her a better leader. “I have felt both challenged and supported in this role. You all have served with integrity, and pushed us to be better,” she said.

As Clark made his announcement, district staff filed into the room and, at one point, gave a standing ovation to the outgoing board members.

Board member Mahalia Hines, who was chosen by Emanuel in May 2011, thanked Clark for his work, and thanked the former mayor for appointing her to the role. Hines also had a special message for the parents who use the public comment section at each board of education meeting to press the board for more resources and, sometimes, to make the outright case that their children’s schools should stay open.

“I want to say thank you to all of the parents who come and take their time to be here. You have helped me to grow,” said Hines. She also commended Jackson, who will continue in her role as schools chief under Lightfoot. “You’re not just saying you are putting children first, you live it.”

During her mayoral campaign, Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, spoke often about how her mother served on the elected school board in her Ohio hometown, and said she supported a move to an elected board in Chicago. 

In advance of Wednesday’s meeting, vocal members of a parents’ group that supports a state bill that would establish a 21-person elected school board began posting on Twitter that they were disappointed that Lightfoot had not overhauled the existing board during her first few days in office.  

Lightfoot was sworn in Monday. In her inauguration speech, she spoke about education as one of four priority pillars for her incoming administration. On Tuesday, she said she officially planned to retain schools chief Janice Jackson.

Meanwhile, a bill that would establish a 21-member elected school board has stalled in the Illinois Senate after passing the House. A coalition of legislators, teachers’ union representatives, and parents groups support the measure. But Lightfoot has described the proposal as a “recipe for chaos and disaster” because of its size and has asked for time to study the issue more.  

Heather Cherone of the Daily Line contributed to this report.