FOIA and Open Meetings fight ends with public victory
As self-serving as it sounds, The Bulldog is happy to report that area Chicago Public Schools have made their Local School Council minutes, agendas and other material available to The Bulldog.
It was the right choice for the schools, but it wasn’t an easy choice. CPS resisted the efforts of The Bulldog.
The Bulldog is making the public documents available to the public through a journalism site which is not affiliated with The Bulldog.
Any member of the public may access the documents there.
THE BACK STORY
In September, The Bulldog issued a Freedom of Information request to the Chicago Public Schools for material regarding the dates set by LSCs for their meetings in this school year.
A second FOIA was issued requesting the name of LSC members.
A third FOIA requested that Trumbull school release the minutes of all LSC meetings held since July 2010.
The requests were made by The Bulldog in conjunction with the Kent Law School Center for Open Government.
Under Illinois FOIA law, government units, such as the schools, have five days to respond to a FOIA request and another five days, provided they ask for a routine extension, to complete the request.
Under Illinois school code, LSCs are required to meet in July of each year and set the dates of their meetings in the coming year.
In addition, under Illinois school code, LSC membership is specifically a matter of open record.
And, finally, the Illinois school code is specific in making LSC minutes and other records a matter of open record.
After the September requests for the records, The Bulldog followed up with the CPS FOIA office. That office acknowledged receiving the request, but did not make significant movement on fulfilling the request until a fiery letter and telephone conversation in late November threatened to sue CPS over their failure to fill the FOIA request.
In December, while the Bulldog was still waiting for the final response to the FOIA, it started a new effort. Using internal policy documents from CPS, and after a discussion with Illinois Rep. Ann Williams, The Bulldog determined that it could use the Open Meetings Act to demand that each school make the LSC minutes available on demand.
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In fact, schools have serious and significant issues with security. The Bulldog contacted the schools and tried to work with them to “examine” the LSC records of all the schools in the Ravenswood area.
The Bulldog continued to work with Kent and now added another line of legal support. The National Lawyers Guild was contacted and members of the NLG, who also give support to Occupy Chicago, advised The Bulldog on civil disobedience.
The Bulldog advised the schools that OMA was not a choice, that The Bulldog was prepared to demand the records even at the risk of arrest.
OUR MISSION GETS INVOLVED
Were we being dramatic? Maybe. But we also demonstrated how serious we took this issue.
In four cases the schools had all the information on line. The Bulldog believes putting the material online is required by Illinois law in any case that a full-time staff person works on a website. That doesn’t mean that the full-time staffer’s only job or primary job is support of the site. It means they contribute to the site as part of their function.
In one case, the school replied that the site was maintained in its entirety by volunteers in the parent community. In all other cases, The Bulldog pressed the schools to make the information available online as required by the Open Meetings Act.
In any case, at this point, all the schools have made the information available to The Bulldog. The Bulldog is working to maintain the database.
Why is this important to you?
Later this year each school will be holding an election for the LSC. Members of the community and parents with children are eligible to serve on the LSC.
As noted by Realtor Eric Rojas and by Ald. Ameya Pawar, there is strong evidence to support the thesis that good schools create an economic system that rewards home owners with strong underlying support for real estate value. More simply, good schools equal better home prices. As residents there is a simple economic interest in maintaining strong neighborhood schools.
A second reason to be concerned about LSC records is that the councils are responsible for spending a significant amount of money in each school. It comes out to hundreds of thousands of dollars of your taxes each year in each school. As residents we need to be certain those tax dollars are well spent.
A third reason is simply that in a very few cases, we emphasize just a few cases, such as at Trumbull school, the LSC has become a toxic liability to the school. At all LSCs the community members and parent representatives should be cross examined, if they try to run again, about the stewardship of the LSC. That is true of all LSCs, but it is particularly true at some LSCs such as Trumbull.
But you are unable to make judgement about matters like this without background. The stories in The Bulldog help and so do the minutes of the LSC.
The final reason this is important is that as The Bulldog has traveled to LSCs held in schools this year the most frequent complaint heard is a request that the minutes be placed on line. There is clearly an interest, even in schools that maintain excellent LSCs and community relations, for this service.
This information belongs to you. It is your right, under the law, to be able to inspect it. The schools are in the habit of making that difficult.
If The Bulldog experiences problems trying to obtain it, which it did at first, imagine the issues you’ll experience without our breaking the path.
The Bulldog would like to thank its legal advisors, Natalie Potts of the Chicago Kent School of Law, executive director of the Center for Open Government and Jerry Boyle of Alvin Block & Assoc, a member of the National Lawyers Guild. The Bulldog would also like to note DocumentCloud.org, a winner of Knight Foundation support, is key to making this information available to the public at no cost.
In addition, The Society of Professional Journalists; Chicago Headline Club through its Freedom of Information committee headed by Alden Loury of the Chicago Reporter and Suzanne McBride, the Associate Chair of the Columbia College School of Journalism, provided encouragement.
In addition, thanks to the interest and understanding of the school principals, the members of the school community, including the staff, and the parents and community members who serve our community and saw the need for this effort. Thank you also to the CPS FOIA office which finally saw the light and encouraged the schools to cooperate with this effort.
- Amundsen High School
- Lake View High School
- Lane Tech
- Audubon School
- Bell School
- Blaine School
- Budlong School
- Chappell School
- Coonley School
- Courtenay School
- Hamilton School
- Ravenswood School
- Stockton School
- Trumbull School
- Waters School