For first time, Chicago’s Local School Council election to include mail-in option

School buses are parked in front of North-Grand High School in Chicago. A U.S. flag flies from a pole in front of the school.
North-Grand High School is one of more than 500 schools that will hold in-person council elections with a mail-in option. (Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat)

For the first time, Chicago’s Local School Council elections will include a mail-in balloting option for parents and school staff, although community members will still have to vote in person at schools. 

Candidate forums started this month at more than 500 of the city’s 640 campuses, even as advocates expressed some frustration about not knowing until weeks into the process how the election would be run.

The district’s announcement Wednesday offers long-awaited clarity. The coronavirus pandemic caused upheaval in this year’s elections, first delaying the election for months and then pushing schools to have a virtual candidacy process. Despite that, the number of people running for council seats has increased, and the number of empty seats has gone down — positive signs amid the uncertainty.

The new hybrid voting option will ensure mail-in ballots are sent to teachers, school staff and parents, while still offering an in-person voting option for those groups. Community members are able to vote in multiple elections depending on what schools are zoned to their home address.  

 For in-person voting, the district said it will enforce social distancing and require face coverings. Voters also will be asked to take an online health screener and temperature check before entering schools. The district also will offer curbside voting for individuals with disabilities, while high school students can expect electronic ballots from principals, though Wednesday’s release didn’t specify how. 

“We know that parents are balancing various commitments which is why we are pleased to offer them the option to vote by mail for the upcoming LSC elections so their voices can be heard in the most seamless way possible,” schools chief Janice Jackson said in the announcement. “Safety is our top priority, and whether parents vote in-person or by mail, we will ensure that eligible voters who want to participate in our LSC elections are able to do so.” 

Natasha Erskine, a council advocate and an organizer with parent group Raise Your Hand, said she was optimistic about the district’s efforts to run a safe election. Still, she wanted assurances that mail-in ballots would be counted in a way that ensured the elections are fair and transparent and there was no opportunity to tamper with the votes. 

Local School Councils have seats for 13 members, including parents, community members, teacher representatives, the school principal and, in high schools, a student. They must have seven members to make a quorum, allowing them to meet.

Parents and community members will be able to vote for five candidates to fill one of eight positions on the council, while school staff will be able to vote for two staff candidates.

Typically, anyone interested in voting in a school council election would visit a school and cast a paper ballot in person. Any Chicago resident can vote in elections for multiple schools if they live within those boundaries.

In recent years, councils have struggled to maintain participation. This year, with a virtual process and coming on the heels of high-profile school police votes taken by councils over the summer, council members were hopeful they’d see a jump in participation. They also said confused messaging made their job harder.

District figures show a jump in participation, though hundreds of seats remain empty. 

Participation numbers show that this year there were 5,910 candidates running for seats, up from 5,658 last year. The number of empty seats fell from 886 seats without a candidate last year to 696 seats this year.

Families can expect to receive their mail-in ballots, including a prepaid return envelope, by Nov. 2, which will be sent to the address on file for a student in the Aspen database. 

Parents, guardians, and staff can drop off or mail. Either way, the ballot must arrive at their school by 7:00 p.m. on election day, which is Nov. 18 for elementary schools and Nov. 19 for high schools. 

You can see Chalkbeat Chicago’s FAQ on school councils, and submit a question, here. 

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