Mayor Brandon Johnson replaces Chicago Board of Education president and most members ahead of move to elected board

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Mayor Brandon Johnson replaces Chicago Board of Education president and most members ahead of move to elected board
By Alice Yin and Sarah Macaraeg
Chicago Tribune
Jul 05, 2023 at 5:47 pm

Jianan Shi, director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, rallies with Chicago Public School parents and supporters to demand remote learning during a protest outside the Thompson Center in 2021.
Jianan Shi, director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, rallies with Chicago Public School parents and supporters to demand remote learning during a protest outside the Thompson Center in 2021. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson has chosen a former teacher and head of a prominent parents advocacy group to lead the Board of Education — part of Johnson’s near-total restructuring of the school board ahead of its transition to an elected panel.

Johnson, himself a former educator and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, announced Wednesday that he’s chosen as his school board head Jianan Shi, the executive director of the nonprofit Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education.

Also appointed to the board was Rudy Lozano Jr., who is the son of a slain activist and is a community leader with a background in youth mentorship who has run for the state House. The other new board members named Wednesday are Mariela Estrada, director of community engagement at the United Way of Metro Chicago who formerly worked for the city’s inspector’s general’s office and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council; Michelle Morales, president of the Woods Fund Chicago, former associate director of the Alternative Schools Network and a longtime community organizer; Tanya D. Woods, executive director of the nonprofit legal aid clinic the Westside Justice Center; and special education advocate Mary Fahey Hughes.

The one current member Johnson decided to retain is Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor of history. She was named vice president.

Shi will take over board leadership from Miguel del Valle, a former state senator who was appointed by previous Mayor Lori Lightfoot four years ago and stepped down in June.

Jianan Shi, center, director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, rallies with Chicago Public School parents and supporters to demand remote learning during a protest outside the Thompson Center on Aug. 25, 2021. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

As Lightfoot did early in her term, Johnson has been expected to reconstitute the Board of Education since taking office in May.

But the circumstances are different this time, as Johnson is the last mayor who will get to hand-pick the people who will govern what is by far the largest school system in Illinois with an enrollment of more than 300,000 students. That’s because, as a result of a change to state law that Lightfoot opposed, the Board of Education will shift from seven members appointed by the mayor to 21 elected representatives.

The transition begins next year, when 10 members will be elected. The other 10 seats, plus a president elected at large, will be chosen by voters in 2026.

“This is an honor, privilege, and responsibility that I do not take lightly. … As stewards of the transition toward an elected school board, we have much to add to and change over the next year and a half,” Shi said in a written statement following his appointment. “We will be advocates for more funding at every level and set up the future 21-seat school board for success.”

Shi, who said he will step down from Raise Your Hand, noted every new appointee has Local School Council experience and has been a Chicago Public Schools educator or parent. Shi was a high school science teacher at CPS’ Eric Solorio Academy on the Southwest Side.

His statement suggested what some of his highest priorities might be, citing the board’s “tremendous responsibility to invest in special education, empower LSCs, and create a family agenda that centers those most impacted.”

Shi added that by “harnessing authentic engagement, expanding wrap-around initiatives like sustainable community schools, and investing in more programs like Career Technical Education (CTE), we can create a district that works for everyone.”

Though Shi’s name has been rumored for weeks as Johnson’s top appointee to the Board of Education, advocacy groups and LSC members had sought more community input and more transparency in Johnson’s decision-making.

In an open letter to the mayor in June, parent organizations and other advocacy groups urged Johnson to appoint board members with more transparency than administrations past, including “open solicitation of candidates, transparency around the criteria and qualifications by which candidates are to be selected,” and to describe his vision for the board’s membership.

With CPS facing a $628 million budget shortfall in the 2025-26 school year, the groups beseeched Johnson to prioritize candidates with both policy expertise on the ongoing challenges the district faces and direct experience with CPS, as parents or alumni.

Cassie Creswell, director of Illinois Families for Public Schools, which signed the letter, said Wednesday that “we don’t have full democratic governance yet in Chicago Public Schools, but we can strive towards more openness and transparency even without that. … And I would hope that, even though we don’t have an elected board yet, these board members will be freer to exercise their professional expertise and their judgment and their conscience than we’ve seen on earlier elected boards.”

In his written announcement Wednesday, Johnson touted his appointees’ community roots and diverse backgrounds.

“These are CPS parents, just as I am, and education champions dedicated to creating learning environments that support our children in the classroom and beyond,” the mayor said.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, the district’s first Latino superintendent, will remain in his role, for which a replacement would be subject to board approval. Paid just over $350,000 under a contract expiring in 2026, Martinez was appointed by Lightfoot in 2021, following a search her office described as unprecedented, in prioritizing inclusivity and public participation.

Johnson said these will be the last mayoral school board appointments to the board before the transition to an elected board begins.

Mayor Brandon Johnson, left, and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez hold a news conference at City Hall in Chicago on June 8, 2023. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

The first 10 non-appointed members are due to be chosen by voters to serve four-year terms during the November 2024 election and sworn into office in January 2025. In November 2026 — a few months before the next mayoral election — voters will choose the remaining board members a board president who will run citywide.

Yet the boundaries of those 20 elected districts have yet to be drawn. State lawmakers extended their own deadline to draw the new map from July 1 to next April 1 after apparently failing to reach consensus on how to carve up the city. A draft map Democrat lawmakers released in May prompted objections from community members who felt it had too few Latino-majority districts, given Latino students make up 47% of the Chicago Public Schools’ student body.

But some who’ve expressed interest in running for a seat are concerned that the map’s delay will shorten the time they have to mount their campaigns and get their messages out, potentially hurting grassroots candidates in particular.

The bill that set forth the transition to an elected school board, signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2021, came as a rebuke to Johnson’s predecessor. Lightfoot had endorsed an elected school board on the campaign trail but backtracked, saying the 21-member board was too large and pushing for a hybrid panel instead.

Johnson, on the other hand, advocated for the passage of the legislation as a CTU organizer.

Three days after her May 2019 inauguration, Lightfoot announced a complete overhaul of the seven-member board was to come. The following month she named the new board members, while retaining then-CPS CEO Janice Jackson, whose 2021 resignation triggered the search resulting in Martinez’s appointment.


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