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Civic Federation recommends CPS open up on financial situation

The Civic Federation recommended a number of fixes after taking CPS to task for a lack of transparency on several key fronts

The Civic Federation recommended a number of fixes after taking CPS to task for a lack of transparency on several key fronts. | File photo

Given its bleak financial situation, Chicago Public Schools isn’t as transparent as it should be with the public, which pays its bills and lives with its decisions, according to a key fiscal watchdog group.

The Civic Federation recommended a number of fixes in a new brief quietly released last month, after taking CPS to task for a lack of transparency on several key fronts.

The Oct. 27 brief advises the mayor’s handpicked board members to livestream meetings so a wider audience can monitor board decisions and beef up its online information about tax-increment financing spending and charter school finances. And they should interact with the members of the public who address them at meetings and openly discuss items from the agenda they later vote on.

“Board members rarely engage with or ask questions of public speakers so stakeholders are not able to discern how impactful public comment is in the decision-making process,” read the brief, noting there was no public discussion about a $725 million debt issuance that took place days after a February board meeting.

President Laurence Msall said the federation has always paid some attention to CPS’ transparency, but notes that extra scrutiny is warranted lately given CPS’ troubled economics.

Msall said he’s bothered by CPS’ reliance on one-time revenue sources and on $215 million the state still has not guaranteed “without producing publicly available contingency or long-term plans.”

CPS parent Jennie Biggs has lived through several of the federation’s complaints. A regular attendee of the monthly meetings since early 2012, Biggs said that after speaking about 20 times, she has been answered or addressed by board members probably three times.

“Most times after I speak I feel like I’m talking to a wall,” she said. “I don’t feel like I am talking to people who have the impact to make decisions that affect my children’s lives.”

As a leader of the parent group Raise Your Hand, Biggs said she has coached novice parents on how to get their message across in the two-minute window that’s strictly enforced.

“There’s been no effort to any of the board members to have that open dialogue,” she said. “That’s a really critical piece that’s missing. We don’t know what they’re saying when they make these decisions. We don’t know what CPS is telling them, what kind of research they’re giving them.”

Board members say they do have lively discussions — at closed-door briefings. While he was on the board, Jesse Ruiz mused about opening those briefings, but the idea never materialized.

Biggs and others have said the meetings’ timing rarely considers working parents or students and teachers. When students do turn up, board President Frank Clark has been known to chide them for missing school.

Hearings just announced to discuss a revamped version of CPS’ budget, increased by $55 million in spending on a new teacher contract and funded by TIF revenue, were set for the Monday after Thanksgiving, first at 12:30 p.m. and then at 3:30 p.m. downtown. Anyone who wants to express concerns to board members must sign up 90 minutes before the start of each meeting.

CPS responded to most questions with a prepared statement: “We appreciate the important feedback from the Civic Federation and other groups — both on what CPS is doing well and what we can improve. We’ll take these recommendations into consideration going forward,” spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an email.

She said the district doesn’t live stream meetings online because of privacy concerns about students’ names.

Budget hearings were scheduled in a “balance of several priorities,” including members’ availability, Bittner said. State law requires the meetings be held so many days before a vote is taken, but she would not say why budget hearings now require a quorum.

Under the previous board president, budget hearings were held in evenings at community colleges — and never featured the full board.

Since Rahm Emanuel appointed new board members in his second term as mayor, a short-lived practice of holding occasional meetings at night and at high schools instead of downtown ceased.