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Partisan head count

A Republican on the Illinois state school board resigned abruptly last week following a legislator's public assertion that the board's GOP-heavy composition violated state law.

Board member Harry Litchfield announced his resignation just days after state Sen. Vince T. Demuzio, a Democrat, held a press conference to declare that the board had too many Republican members.

Harry Litchfield

Illinois law requires that no more than five of the board's nine members belong to the same party. Political affiliation is determined by how members vote in the primary election before their appointments.

According to Mr. Demuzio's records, six members voted in the 1996 GOP primary before Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, appointed them to the board in early 1997. Without a legally viable composition, Mr. Demuzio charged, any of the board's decisions--including the upcoming appointment of the next state schools chief--would be invalid.

In recent months, Mr. Demuzio has publicly derided the board, calling its plans to hire a new state superintendent before the Nov. 3 gubernatorial election a "political hoax." ("Ignoring Critics, State Boards Pursue New Schools Chiefs," Sept. 9, 1998.)

In a letter to Gov. Edgar, Mr. Litchfield said his resignation would "eliminate the possibility of problems related to the board's ability to take action." Mr. Litchfield's six-year term was scheduled to expire in January.

Despite Mr. Litchfield's announcement, Mr. Demuzio maintains that the board is still unfairly stacked with Republicans. That's because Sandra Pellegrino, who was appointed as a Democrat last year, voted Republican in the 1998 primary, Mr. Demuzio said. Ms. Pellegrino could not be reached for comment last week.

The state attorney general's office was scheduled to issue a ruling on the matter by the end of last week.

Lee Milner, a spokesman for the state board of education, said that how board members vote following their appointments should have no bearing on what is considered their official political affiliation. "The statute says very plainly that party membership is defined by how a board member votes in the last primary before appointment," Mr. Milner said. "That language is very clear."

--JESSICA L. SANDHAM [email protected]

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Page 14

Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as State Journal

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