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Illinois House votes overwhelmingly for Chicago school board shake-up

CHICAGO, March 3 (Reuters) - Oversight of Chicago’s financially-reeling school system would shift from a board controlled by Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel to an elected board under legislation approved overwhelmingly by the Illinois House on Thursday in a rare show of bipartisanship.

The measure pushed by public-sector unions but opposed by Emanuel would replace the existing, mayorally-appointed board in 2018 with an elected, 21-member board to control the nation’s third largest school system.

The measure, which passed 110-4, now moves to the Illinois Senate. It follows financial and ethical breakdowns that have severely strained Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and triggered a call for a state takeover of the system by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.

Under legislation sponsored by state Representative Robert Martwick, a Chicago Democrat, the city would be divided into 20 districts from which board members would be elected. An additional member would run city-wide as board president.

CPS’ existing governance structure was put into place in 1995.

Since then, CPS has more than doubled its debt load to $6.2 billion and shorted payments to its teachers pension system, which has a $9.4 billion unfunded pension liability, a more than seven-fold increase since 2004. Rauner has launched a financial probe of the cash-strapped district.

Last year, Emanuel’s hand-picked schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett resigned after being implicated in a scheme to steer a $23 million no-bid schools contract to her previous employer. She pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges last October.

On Thursday, advocates for an elected board cited that list of financial and management transgressions under an appointed board.

“My friends, if an appointed school board can do all that, I suggest we elect second graders from the Chicago public school system because they could not do any worse,” said state Representative David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights, a suburb northwest of Chicago.

The legislation’s fate in the Senate is unclear.

Reporting by Dave McKinney; Editing by Tom Brown