CHICAGO — Chicagoans lambasted Illinois lawmakers for failing to better represent public school families, which are mostly Latino, in a revised draft map for the city’s soon-to-be-elected school board.
They also took the legislators to task for giving the public less than 24 hours notice before holding a virtual hearing Thursday to gather more feedback before the spring legislative session is scheduled to end and ahead of a July 1 deadline for drawing the maps.
“This type of lack of transparency is exactly why so many people, especially people of color, don’t trust our government,” said Eli Brottman, a political consultant who testified Thursday night.
Lawmakers face a July 1 deadline to draw districts for the November 2024 election, when Chicago voters are set to elect 10 of 21 school board members.
The new draft, which was released late Wednesday night, tinkers with three districts where no racial group has a 50 percent majority, tilting two of those in favor of Latinos. Under the current proposal, seven districts have a population that is 50 percent or more Black, five where Latinos make up 50 percent or more of the population, and five where the population is 50 percent or more white. Two districts have a Latino plurality, where roughly 40 percent of the population is Latino, and one has a white plurality. The initial proposal had two districts with a white plurality and one with a Latino plurality.
Chicago’s population is 33 percent white, 29 percent Latino and 29 percent Black, but the school district’s student population is 46.5 percent Latino, 36 percent Black, 11 percent white and 4 percent Asian American.
Chicagoans have voiced concerns over the last few months about whether voting districts will reflect Chicago Public Schools enrollment or the city’s overall population.
The state senate’s Special Committee on the Chicago Elected Representative School Board and the House Democrats’ CPS Districting Working Group must also strike a delicate balance because electoral districts are drawn — and redrawn — based on voting-age population or total population after every census. They must also draw districts that are compact, contiguous and equal in population and also comply with the Voting Rights Act, which requires districts that aim to preserve clusters of minority voters.
A group of local researchers, CPS parents and open data advocates in Chicago put forward 1,000 alternatives to the first draft and another 1,000 alternatives to the revised map.
Denali Dasgupta said that group has been trying to create maps that account for the student population in Chicago Public Schools, but are still based on voters. She admitted that it’s not easy, but said the current draft has a proposed district covering much of downtown with only about 2,000 public school students living in it.
“I think that people running for office there and people voting there might understand the assignment of electing a member a representative to the school board a little bit differently,” she said.
Vanessa Espinoza, a parent with Kids First Chicago, which has been organizing parents around representation on the school board, said the revised map still perpetuates “systemic advantages to Chicago’s white population at the expense of people of color.”
Chicago City Council’s Latino Caucus opposed the current map as well.
“As it stands now, Springfield has proposed a map that creates a majority white school board which will govern the outcome of black and Latino students,” said Michaela Vargas, executive director of the Chicago Latino Caucus Foundation.
Ald. Nicole Lee, who represents the city’s first and only Asian American ward, said the lack of Asian American representation in the proposed map is disconcerting.
“The current version of this map also does not allow for our community to have a sufficient voice in the school board,” Lee said, before urging lawmakers to postpone a vote.
Jeff Fiedler, executive director with the Chicago Republican Party, raised concerns about gerrymandering and said the map-drawing process should have been done by an independent commission.
The Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting has advocated for a map that aims to follow the City Council’s Ward boundaries. Valerie Leonard, the group’s leader, said the revisions were disappointing.
“The map breaks up communities,” she said. “In some instances, the districts might include as many as seven wards.”
Leonard also continued to raise questions about how the first election in 2024 will be handled if lawmakers put forward a 20-district map right away.
In November 2024, the law says, 10 members will be elected from 10 districts and the mayor will appoint 10 members from those same districts, as well as a board president. In November 2026, the appointed members will be elected. By January 2027, all 21 members will be elected, with a school board president voted on by all Chicagoans and 20 chosen by district. It will be the country’s largest elected school board.
In her opening remarks on Thursday, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who chairs the special committee, said “lawmakers are seeking guidance on whether current laws should remain the same.”
During the hearing Thursday night, the Illinois House posted notice that it would hold a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Friday on “the creation of the new Chicago Elected School Board districts.”
Dasgupta said lawmakers should not rush to pass something before the spring legislative session ends in the coming days.
“I don’t want us to end up down the road two years where we’re looking at a critical issue like school closures and have people saying, ‘Well, the people spoke and this is what they decided,’ And someone’s saying, ‘How did we get here?’ and me being like, ‘Let me tell you. There was this one day in May …’” Dasgupta said.
Doing so would meet the July 1 deadline for drawing Chicago’s elected school board districts, but would be a “blow to civic life,” she said.
Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.