Ex-Gov. Quinn joins legal actions to overturn state law letting mayor choose Chicago school board

By Scott Holland | Oct 10, 2016

Former Gov. Pat Quinn has joined state and federal lawsuits aiming to change the way Chicago Public Schools Board members are selected, saying state law giving the mayor of Chicago, and not voters, the power to select the Chicago Board of Education violates voters’ and taxpayers’ rights under the U.S. and Illinois constitutions. 

Both complaints were field Oct. 5 in hopes of allowing city voters to elect school board members. Under a state law in place since 1995, the mayor of Chicago was empowered to name board members without need for City Council approval. Joining Quinn as plaintiffs in each action are Irene Robinson, Antwain Miller, Marc Kaplan, Christopher Ball, Daniel Morales-Doyle and Jitu Brown, all parents and grandparents of CPS students. Many had been affiliated with CPS’ Local School Councils. 

The federal complaint invokes the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, noting “the system of exclusive mayoral control — and the deprivation of plaintiffs’ constitutional right to vote — has failed to substantially advance any legitimate purpose. To the contrary, after 20 years of mayorally appointed boards, the Chicago Public Schools are far worse off financially than” when the 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act took effect. 

It further alleges the direct appointment process illegally suppresses the city’s minority population from electing representatives, in violation of the Voting Rights Act: “The purpose of the 1995 Act was to limit the ability of minority race voters to determine how much of that property wealth can be taxed and used almost entirely for the education of minority race children and only a small fraction of white children.” 

As such, the federal complaint cites a “pattern of racially polarized voting in Chicago” by the late 1980s, including the racially-split City Council during the mayoral tenure of Harold Washington. Whereas “the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988 gave African-American citizens and other citizens substantial voting rights and rights of participation in the political process,” the 1995 law was enacted with the “express purpose … to eliminate those voting and participation rights, which African-American citizens were exercising to a greater degree than white citizens, especially in connection with Local School Council elections.” 

In Cook County Circuit Court, Quinn’s complaint alleges the mayoral appointment power violates two articles of the Illinois Constitution: equal protection and equal right to vote, alleging that, “after 20 years of experience with mayoral appointment, there is no substantial basis to believe that an appointed Chicago Board of Education has done a better job of managing the public schools than an elected one could or would have done.” 

The Circuit Court complaint further challenges the authority of appointed bodies to levy property taxes, arguing “the board of education is not accountable to any legislative body of any kind in its tax and expenditure decisions,” and said the General Assembly’s passage of the 1995 Act interferes with the city’s home rule authority and constitutes a violation of the state constitution. 

According to the lawsuits, the CPS board oversees the largest school district in Illinois, yet it is the only one of 859 public school districts in the state whose members are not directly elected by citizens. From fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2016 the Chicago Board of Education levied more than $11 billion in property taxes. 

In each complaint, Quinn and his fellow plaintiffs want the courts to force the city and State Board of Elections to develop a plan for a school board election no later than April 2017. The state complaint also asks the court to allow the continued collection of property taxes on the condition the General Assembly install an elected school board with “a minimum of legislative accountability for the levy of taxes.” 

Representing the plaintiffs in these cases is the Chicago firm of Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan.

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Chicago Public Schools City of Chicago Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd.

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