With Local School Council elections less than a week away, community web sites and reform activists are still fighting to get basic information about candidates to help voters decide whom to support.
AustinTalks and others began working well before the March 23 application deadline to get information about the candidates, including nominating forms that can contain candidate statements that tell voters why they’re running.
But the requests were met with miscommunication and delays that appear to be the result of recent Chicago Public Schools’ changes leaving employees swamped with requests and no plan to easily make public information available to the public.
With too few applications received for the more than 6,800 available LSC seats citywide, CPS announced a day before the March 8th application deadline that it would be extended by two weeks but kept the election dates – April 18 for K-8 schools and April 19 for the high schools – the same.
While the change allowed more time for would-be candidates to apply, AustinTalks reporters and other news outlets, including Center Square Journal, soon grew concerned about getting information from CPS that would then allow for the candidates to be interviewed before the elections.
These concerns stemmed from recent changes to CPS policy that limits public access to candidate applications.
“Unfortunately, CPS is making this very difficult for everyone,” said Natalie Brouwer Potts, executive director at the Center for Open Government and clinical assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, about the policy that now requires the public to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which can delay the process for days, if not weeks.
She said CPS has “very legitimate concerns about sensitive information,” which prompted her to send a letter to CPS FOIA officer Cassandra Daniels Feb. 29 urging staff to “make a very simple change.”
She said by redacting sensitive information, such as birth dates and identification numbers, and storing public copies separately, the public could easily access the necessary documents without giving out confidential information.
“This is a really easy solution … and CPS has refused to do this,” she said.
“FOIA takes several weeks in (the) best of circumstances,” Potts said “There’s no way for people to get this information in time.”
In an e-mail response to questions from AustinTalks, CPS spokeswoman Jamila Johnson said, “We are always open to receiving feedback and recommendations from members of the public.”
“In this case, a CPS official spoke directly with Ms. Potts regarding the letter she submitted and her recommendations. Unfortunately, we are not able to immediately make such detailed policy changes without fully vetting the legal ramifications of such recommendations,” she said.
With two fewer weeks to contact candidates for nearly a dozen LSC races on the West Side, AustinTalks reached out to CPS in early March after learning about the new March 23 application deadline.
CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan said in a March 7 phone conversation he wasn’t sure if reporters should go directly to the neighborhood schools for the information or if it could only be obtained from CPS’ downtown office. He advised AustinTalks reporters to follow-up the week of the deadline.
AustinTalks reached out again March 21, allowing two weeks for CPS to continue collecting applications. This time, spokeswoman Johnson said she should be able to provide the information without AustinTalks having to file a formal FOIA request.
But after not receiving the requested information or a response March 26, AustinTalks followed-up with a phone call to Johnson. Later that evening, Johnson said in an e-mail she wasn’t able to assist with the request and a formal FOIA was required.
AustinTalks submitted the FOIA request, followed by e-mails to CPS communications department staff expressing concerns about not receiving the information in a timely manner.
It wasn’t until AustinTalks sent an e-mail to communications staff April 3 informing them about plans to report to the public the difficulties experienced that CPS staff finally responded to AustinTalks’ requests.
“When you first made your request, Jamila was unaware of the confidential materials in the application, which thus turned the request into a FOIA. She immediately notified you once she learned this. I apologize for the miscommunication,” said CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus in an e-mail following CPS’ request for an extension to the FOIA deadline.
When asked why no one at CPS responded to AustinTalks’ concerns, Johnson said in an e-mail, “Our goal is to provide members of the media and the public with as much information and to be as forthcoming as possible. We have had conversations with AustinTalks over the last couple of months on how we can work more productively together and hope that going forward we will have a much better line of communication for all involved.”
CPS also denies there were any delays in releasing the requested public information.
Among multiple e-mail exchanges between AustinTalks and CPS communications staff, Becky Carroll, chief communications and public engagement officer, said, “the LSC office has provided daily updates to all who’ve asked for information school-by-school on the number of candidates that have filed.”
While AustinTalks did not request the number of candidates – but was seeking to get basic information about the candidates so they could be contacted and given the opportunity to talk about their candidacies - this was a problem for at least one local activist.
Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, said he asked CPS for a list of the number of candidates running for LSC positions at all the city schools after learning about the new application deadline.
“In the past, it’s been routine that they release this stuff,” Moore said about his requests for the number of candidates running, a list their of names and basic contact information.
“To my knowledge, this is a whole new development. They never before put up any barriers to people getting and just going in a looking at the candidate applications.”
Moore said information in the past has been used mostly by people and organizations like Designs for Change who want to recruit candidates. He said those numbers serve as a guide to see which schools are short of candidates.
Moore said something changed after he had an argument with the head of CPS’ Office of LSC Relations.
“We had been asking for lists of the number of candidates at each school, and then (CPS) provided that to us, and we released the info about how low the number of candidates was, and he got irate with me,” Moore said.
After that, Moore said CPS required Designs for Change to submit FOIA requests for the information.
“This is the first time that we FOIAed the number of candidates per school,” he said.
“Since the numbers change day-to-day, by the time you get the FOIA answered, it would be useless,” Moore said.
He said the lack of information released about the candidates is “really inappropriate.”
“It would be a no brainer to say, ‘Of course, you should have access to information because the eligibility of the candidates is subject to appeal or to challenge,’ and it doesn’t make any sense for the board or the principal to obstruct the access to the information,” Moore said.
But Carroll said in an email that Moore’s account is “simply untrue.”
She said Moore was only instructed to submit a FOIA request after pressing to receive the information faster than CPS staff was able to provide it.
“Mr. Moore was very insistent and was told that he could FOIA it, but it would be faster to wait until Monday,” she said.
On April 4, AustinTalks received a list of candidate names and addresses from CPS though not phone numbers, the same day The Center Square Journal also received the information its reporters had spent nearly two weeks working to obtain.
But AustinTalks is still waiting for the other information requested, including the candidate statements and copies of letters that provide details about public forums to be held at each school.
While the optional statements are supposed to be posted at the neighborhood schools – a fact CPS spokesman Shuftan did not mention when AustinTalks asked about going directly to the schools – AustinTalks reporters did check to see if the documents are posted.
On her April 9 visit, reporter Ellyn Fortino found lists of candidates and statements posted at Henry H. Nash Elementary, George Leland Elementary and May Elementary Academy, but not at Ella Flagg Young Elementary.
When Fortino requested the documents from Ella Flagg Young, the school’s LSC coordinator did provide it.
On April 10, reporter Sarah Ostman found a list of candidates and statements posted at Louis Armstrong Math and Science Elementary, but only a list of candidates was posted at Milton Brunson Math & Science Specialty Elementary. And neither a list nor statements were posted at Michele Clark Academic Preparatory Magnet High School.
When Ostman requested the documents from Michele Clark staff, an office employee posted the statements. But staff at Brunson said they would have to wait for CPS to tell them if it’s OK to make this information public.
“Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention,” spokeswoman Johnson said in an email.
“This is the first we have heard of this, and the LSC Relations Office will look into why these schools are not adhering to the election guidelines,” she said.
Ellyn Fortino contributed to this piece.