A Conversation on School Boards

Issue Reports
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News

On April 18, LWV Chicago Education Committee Co-chair Nancy Brandt contacted Illinois Rep. Robert Martwick (D-19th) about the optimal size of an elected school board as suggested by observers of effective representation. Martwick introduced legislation in the General Assembly that would create a 21-member school board for Chicago with 20 electoral districts and a president elected citywide. It passed the House by a vote of 110-4.

In a letter to Martwick and other sponsors of the legislation, Brandt identified potential problems with such a large size board: lengthy and unworkable board meetings that end up shifting power from the board to the chief administrator and his/her staff or to an executive committee, with consequent rubber-stamping of decisions by the board in either case.

These observations were the result of the 2016 LWV Chicago study of numerous issues related to governance of the Chicago Board of Education, one of which surveyed the size of boards of education throughout the United States and also collected recommendations from various sources concerning the optimal size of effective boards.

After examining the five largest school districts in the country and in seven other major cities, our study found that the vast majority of elected school boards have either 7 or 9 members. Some have as few as 5 members; the largest school district, New York City’s, has 13 appointed members.

In response, Martwick noted that the plan for an elected school board would have one member from each of 20 local school districts. These were the advantages, as he saw them:

  • Representation from many different city neighborhoods.
  • Reduced influence from special interests or outside money, as seen in Los Angeles, whose seven-member board is dominated by well-funded charter school supporters.
  • Less costly school board races.
  • Districts small enough that school board candidates would be able to knock on doors of constituents during campaigns.

A large school board with members from 20 different districts may do little to reduce the influence of special interests and outside money (public financing of campaigns may be needed) or to encourage more personal and direct interaction between candidates and their constituents. Nevertheless, Martwick is opting for larger size and, theoretically, more representation over a smaller and perhaps better functioning board.

League to which this content belongs: 
Chicago