An unusual mix of possible candidates are lining up for the first Chicago school board election this fall

CHICAGO (AP) — A Grammy-winning rapper, progressive activists and the leader of an after-school squash program are among the eclectic mix of possible candidates preparing for Chicago’s first school board election this fall.

America’s third-largest city has long been an outlier, with a mayor-appointed board overseeing its public schools, and it took years of advocacy and legislative wrangling to get to that point. But the messiest part is likely yet to come.

November’s historic races are part of a multi-year transition that is difficult to explain to voters. Special interest groups are taking note. And they answer questions about how the new 21-member board, triple its current size, will govern.

“This is not a political race, it’s a movement,” said rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith, who is among dozens of hopefuls who have filed fundraising papers. “Everyone in this city has a responsibility to the children who will be served.”

Prospective candidates circulate petitions while educating voters about the inaugural contests. Many are parents, advocates and former educators making their first foray into politics, navigating a steep learning curve with little name recognition or money.

While lawmakers approved a council elected in 2021, the logistics, including political maps, were not set until March. The council will not be fully elected until 2027.

Residents, divided into 10 sprawling districts, will vote for board members to take office next year. The mayor will then appoint 10 other board members from the smaller subdistricts, along with a city-wide president. In 2026, voters will elect all 21 members, possibly to four-year terms.

“It almost takes a flowchart to figure it out,” said Adam Parrott-Sheffer, a former principal who draws on his experience running in the same South Side district as Smith.

Conversations with potential backers involve more explaining the process than the issues, he says.

Parent Kate Doyle, who founded a nonprofit organization, hopes to represent a district on the North Side. After knocking on hundreds of doors, he found one person, a teacher, who fully understood what was coming.

The Chicago Board of Education — which adopts a $9 billion budget, confirms a CEO and approves policies and contracts — was created by state lawmakers in 1872. By many accounts, a seven-member board was established in 1999. The district of about 325,000 students, which serves mostly low-income black and Latino children, has faced budget cuts and population declines.

Interest in elected representation gained momentum after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed more than 50 schools in 2013.

The Chicago Teachers Union, among the groups supporting the change, sees it as a voting rights issue.

“An elected school board brings people from those spaces that have been neglected and disinvested to a table where they have agency,” said CTU President Stacy Davis Gates.

More than 90% of school boards are elected, according to the National School Boards Association. Few school districts have recently changed from an appointed to an elected school board, leaving Chicago without a road map.

A scholarship program through National Louis University is trying to ease the transition from Chicago through training for potential board members. Most of the 22 current scholarship holders are hoping to make it to the November ballot. They learn how to engage with audiences and tactics for group decision-making.

“If this program can shorten that learning curve a little bit, that could have a tremendously positive impact on students in the city,” said Bridget Lee, who oversees the program.

Candidates face numerous obstacles, including a truncated campaign season.

The jobs, which district officials estimate require up to 30 hours a week, are unpaid, limiting who can afford to apply. At least 1,000 signatures are needed to get on the ballot, more than double that for contenders and some congressional candidates with paid political operations.

Anusha Thotakura, a 25-year-old activist with the progressive organization Citizen Action Illinois, collected 600 signatures in a district that includes affluent and low-income neighborhoods.

“This council gives people a lot of hope in terms of accountability,” she said.

Smith fanned signed petitions on the table at his great-grandmother’s home on the South Side, where he lives.

“In Chicago, that’s money,” the 46-year-old joked. Still, he’s pouring $80,000 into his bid and has written a campaign song called “Optimist.”

“People see a rapper and there’s a stigma,” said Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011. “I’m here to break the stereotypes.”

Voter turnout in school elections is typically below 10 percent, according to the NSBA. The presidential contest is expected to help, although voter turnout in Chicago’s March primary was the lowest in years at about 26 percent.

That adds weight to the endorsements, including from the influential teachers’ union. The competition to get them is fierce.

One possible candidate, Yesenia Lopez, disclosed her campaign with the support of Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia before campaign disclosure documents were filed.

Jesus Ayala, 32, hopes to run in the same Southwest Side district. He works at MetroSquash, a sports complex that offers mentoring and other student programs through racquet sports.

“When you have a congressman announcing someone’s candidacy, it feels like an elected official trying to appoint someone to the board,” he said.

Elsewhere, outside organizations have poured money into downvote school elections, making them vote by proxy on controversial national issues. During the 2017 Los Angeles council races, unions and pro-charter school groups spent $15 million.

In Chicago, charter school groups are already getting involved.

Paul Vallas, a former superintendent and failed Chicago mayoral candidate, has started a political action committee that could endorse candidates. Parents advocating for the restoration of school bus service, which the district cut amid a driver shortage, hosted the first candidate forum.

“The wild thing in all of this is: Are there going to be national issues that are tangentially related that bleed into the race?” asked Michael Ford, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

District officials have provided few details about how the board will operate. One thing that raises eyebrows is its size.

“They create the conditions for a lot of political infighting, more opportunities to broker deals, things that have been synonymous with Chicago politics,” said Jonathan Collins, a political scientist at Columbia University.

Los Angeles has seven members on the board, while Houston has nine. In New York, the full is partially designated and has recently increased from 15 to 23.

Illinois state Sen. Rob Martwick, who supported an elected board, said multiple districts were created to reduce the influence of outside money. More legislative changes could follow, including campaign finance and board pay.

“Now that the responsibility to make our schools better is in your hands, I can’t blame the mayor anymore,” Martwick said. “Look in the mirror.”

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