CPS hiding records from the BGA and you

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So what happens when children don’t follow the rules at school — when they’re unruly, disruptive or underachieving?

Well, their parents might get emails from teachers or calls from the principal.

And the intervention may include detentions, uncomfortable visits to the school office, or the specter of losing access to sports and other extra-curricular activities.

The point is: Kids know there are consequences for bad behavior, and school officials understand their jobs include socializing children along with educating them.

So it’s worth noting the disconnect and, yes, even hypocrisy, in Chicago’s public schools, where officials regularly and blatantly ignore legal requirements, including state law, when it comes to complying with document requests filed under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA enables the media, civic watchdogs and regular citizens to obtain copies of most public records from government agencies like CPS.

It’s how those officials can be held accountable for decisions that affect children’s lives and tax dollars.

Public schools have several FOIA exemptions — certain personnel and student performance information, for example — but most of their records are also our records.

And when someone submits a FOIA request, the public agency generally has five business days to comply.

But CPS regularly breaks the rules.

Better Government Association investigators have waited long past the required deadline to obtain basic documents, and the Illinois Attorney General’s office confirms a pattern of CPS ignoring FOIA requests, often for weeks or months, until the requester asks the AG to step in.

As a result, the AG’s staff has been critical of the way CPS handles FOIA requests, but it’s mostly fallen on deaf ears.

So finally, fed up with the stonewalling, the BGA filed a lawsuit against CPS, alleging the school system “willfully and intentionally violated FOIA by failing to respond … in a timely manner.”

Yes — “willfully and intentionally.”

Why? Becausewith so many FOIA requests slipping through the cracks for so long, CPS has to be doing this purposely, or at least be aware its FOIA compliance is grossly inadequate.

As far as we can tell, there’s only one FOIA officer fielding requests at CPS, which has hundreds of schools, thousands of teachers, and hundreds of thousands of students.

That’s ridiculous. And CPS, led by educated professionals, should understand that.

Our suit is demanding reforms — not just to punish CPS, but also to fix the FOIA process and improve service to the public.

A television partner, NBC 5, joined us in the suit, which asks for “court-supervised remedial changes to correct this systemic failure and achieve the transparency required under FOIA.”

In the end, it’s about documents being systematically withheld from watchdogs, reporters and taxpayers who are simply exercising their legal right to obtain information that helps them determine if an agency’s being run honestly, efficiently and effectively.

Remember — tax dollars are at stake, and the lives of young Chicagoans whose education is our future.

It’s CPS administrators — who work for the Board of Education, City Hall and ultimately the taxpayers — who deserve detentions for denying their constituents access to records we’re entitled to.

We’ll see them in court, but in the meantime they should be kept after school for a lesson in Transparency and Accountability 101.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

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