Chicago School Board still giving the public the cold shoulder

CPS requires everyone who wants to attend a board meeting to register, which is unheard of elsewhere

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New Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle speaks during a press conference announcing the new Chicago Public Schools board, on June 3.

New School Board President Miguel del Valle has promised the board will be more open and transparent, but the public still must register to attend meetings.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It was clear from the start of last week’s Chicago Board of Education meeting that some things are changing at CPS.

Newly installed President Miguel del Valle warned that the board’s monthly meetings will take longer because members will be asking more questions about how the state’s largest school district operates. He urged his colleagues to not be a rubber-stamp board, and he promised more discussion and debate about critical issues facing CPS.

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Del Valle also announced a series of changes in the way the board, appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in early June, will operate. Meetings will be live-streamed, and some will be held out in the community and later in the day. More people will be able to attend, and there will be more space to accommodate them.

What was missing from that list?

Doing away with an unusual requirement CPS instituted in 2013 requiring everyone who wants to attend the board’s monthly meetings to register — something the Illinois attorney general’s office has said should stop.

“They definitely can’t do that,” Ben Silver told the Sun-Times last year. Silver is a lawyer with the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, a group that pushes for public access to government records and meetings. “The whole thing is pretty outrageous.”

Last summer, the Illinois attorney general’s office determined CPS had violated state law when it required the public to sign up in advance to attend its August 2013 meeting. In 30 years of covering meetings as a journalist, I never had experienced such a process.

Seeing people turned away from that meeting nearly six years ago prompted me to file a complaint with the attorney general’s Public Access Bureau, which decided five years later that no remedial action was necessary “because the Board has since rescinded the advance registration requirement for meeting attendance.”

That didn’t mean the public could just walk in, however. CPS still keeps track of everyone who wants to attend its monthly board meetings — something none of the other 800-plus Illinois school boards appear to do. So I filed another complaint in June 2018, at the suggestion of the attorney general’s office.

Last week, after the seating of Lightfoot’s new board — a group lauded for its interest in transparency — it was time to see if CPS had decided to abandon the registration process and just let people into their public meetings, like other governmental bodies do.

But the registration process was still in effect, much to the frustration of some who had to stand in a line to see if they could get into the June 26 meeting.

Keith Moens, who has attended about a half- dozen meetings since retiring as a 6th grade teacher in 2012, called the process “ridiculous.”

As we talked in the lobby of CPS’ headquarters, members of the Chicago Teachers Union chanted, “We have the power, we have the power” — something Moens said he found ironic. He pointed out that it’s CPS that has the power to control who gets into their meetings — and who is left out.

The registration form — which asks for a person’s name, phone number, place of employment and the reason they want to attend the meeting — poses an obvious impediment to the average person. Nobody should have to jump through such hoops to get into a public meeting.

In a lengthy written statement, CPS defended its registration process, noting the district no longer requires people to provide information beyond their name and email address, though it wasn’t clear to some who used the system last week that they didn’t have to answer the other questions.

The attorney general’s office acknowledged that it’s taken the Public Access Bureau too long to respond to my complaints (it still hasn’t acted on the complaint I filed a year ago), blaming the delay on too few staff attorneys. The bureau has seven lawyers in its Chicago office and five in Springfield. That number will grow under the new state budget that took effect Monday; the bureau plans to hire six more assistant attorneys general and two administrative assistants.

We’ll see if beefing up the Public Access Bureau will help it respond more promptly to the nearly 4,000 inquiries it receives each year about problems citizens face in obtaining public records and attending government meetings.

For members of the public wanting to be at the next Chicago Board of Education meeting, they’ll still need to register online or by phone the morning of July 22 — two days before the meeting — and even then, they might not get an “observer” seat.

Some things, it appears, don’t change at CPS.

Suzanne McBride is chair of the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago and an editor at the Sun-Times.

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