More than 60 students, recent graduates, staff and teachers from Simeon High School showed up at the offices of the Chicago Public Schools earlier this summer, hoping to attend the school board’s monthly meeting.
Two days earlier, CPS announced it had removed Simeon’s principal, Sheldon House, from his position as part of an ongoing, district-wide investigation into allegations of sexual abuse involving students.
But most of the Simeon group were not allowed into the meeting because of the unusual — and likely illegal — way CPS controls admission.
Anybody interested in attending a Chicago Board of Education meeting must register online in advance. If you just show up, you are asked to stand in a specific line and answer several questions, including whether you’re a CPS parent and why you want to attend the meeting. You have to give CPS your name and phone number, too.
“They definitely can’t do that,” says Ben Silver, a lawyer with the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, a group that pushes for public access to government records and meetings. “That’s going to intimidate anyone who’s thinking of going there and opposing them. … The whole thing is pretty outrageous.”
The Illinois Open Meetings Act, says Silver, doesn’t allow a governmental body, including CPS, to question members of the public before allowing them into an open meeting.
Being kept out of the June 27 meeting upset Tanesha Burgin-Reed, who works at Simeon. All three of her sons graduated from the South Side school. Burgin-Reed made the trip downtown to show support for former Principal House, whom she credits with moving Simeon up from the district’s lowest academic rating, Level 3, to the top rating, Level 1.
“It’s real disheartening that we came down here and can’t get in,” she said. “I’m really disappointed.”
Instead, Burgin-Reed and others not allowed into the meeting could only stand outside CPS headquarters, holding handmade signs.
CPS has been caught closing the door on the public before. Nearly five years ago, I and another Columbia College professor, Curtis Lawrence, along with a group of journalism students, attempted to attend a CPS meeting only to learn that none of us would be allowed in because we had not registered in advance. Eventually, we were allowed in as members of the press — but we witnessed a number of others being turned away that day.
We filed a complaint with the state’s Public Access Bureau, part of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, and this past May received a letter stating CPS had violated state law when it required the public to register in advance to attend the August 2013 meeting. “However, no remedial action is necessary at this time because the Board has since rescinded the advance registration requirement for meeting attendance,” the public access bureau wrote.
When contacted the day after the June board meeting and informed CPS was still using a registration process, an attorney with the public access bureau encouraged me to file another complaint.
CPS says it started a pre-registration process in 2013 because that’s what members of the public wanted; before then, people would wait hours in line to get into the meeting, says CPS spokesman Michael Passman. “We don’t have physical space to accommodate everyone.”
Later in a statement, CPS claimed no one has complained to them about not being able to get into the monthly meetings. “We have not been made aware of any concerns about members of the public being turned away from a Board meeting. All community members who arrive on the day of a meeting are offered an opportunity to register when they arrive and encouraged to wait in the lobby until a seat becomes available.”
It’s time CPS fixed this, says Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand and co-director of Raise Your Hand Action. Before stepping down as executive director of the parent advocacy group, Katten attended every board meeting for seven years where she regularly saw members of the public — often CPS parents who had taken the day off from work — being shut out of the meeting. “That happens every month.”
Katten happened to be at the June meeting and was able to get in because she had pre-registered, though initially CPS staff weren’t letting her in. “I knew who to complain to. I had to make a lot of noise.” After about 20 minutes, she and a few others from Raise Your Hand got into the meeting, while others standing nearby were kept out, Katten said.
She questions why each month there are just 160 spots for the public to attend a meeting where the state’s largest school district — with about 370,000 students — conducts its business.
That’s a good question. Does CPS really want the public there? The school district shouldn’t wait for the attorney general’s office to take action. It should do the right thing after denying the public access to its meetings all these years: Let the people in.
Suzanne McBride is chair of the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago and an editor at the Sun-Times.
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