by Timothy Geigner

Filed Under:
chicago, foia, schools

Chicago School System On FOIA Requests: Stonewalling, Obfuscation, & Paper-Shredding

from the now-you-see-it,-now-you-don't dept

If you're a government with something to hide, there are plenty of shady ways to handle Freedom of Information Act requests. You can make sure your organization is legally allowed to carry guns and simply refuse, like the NYPD. You can also make a big deal about how requests are only honored for in-state residents, as if that were the spirit of the legislation. Or, if you're as big as the federal government, you can play a sort of bureaucratic hackey-sack game with the request for years before releasing the most non-useful information possible. The problem with all of these methods, however, is that they make those using them look petty, but they don't really cement their position in the corrupt jackasses category that I believe all government agencies secretly want to obtain.

Which is why we'll go to the Chicago city government, since they're the obvious experts in the matter. Here, Rahm Emanuel's administration has taken responding to FOIA requests to a whole new level, not only providing nothing in response to such requests, but then answering questions from the Attorney General with non-responses indicating they might just have proactively destroyed the documents being requested. This story begins with our vaunted public school system, the CPS. Glenn Krell wanted to get his hands on what research had been done when CPS put in a longer school day without bothering to give schools any resources to actually do anything with the extra time.

Krell figured CPS had done research on the longer school day because, like every parent in the system, he'd received a letter from Jean-Claude Brizard, then the CEO, claiming that "our elementary school students are receiving 22 percent less instruction time than their peers across the country." So he sent CPS a FOIA request asking for "the reports, statistics, comprehensive city-by-city analysis and other documents that back up the statement by Mr. Brizard."
CPS responded that "the district does not maintain any documents responsive to your request."
Got that? CPS cites a statistic justifying the longer school day, Krell asks for the basis of that statistic, and CPS says there is no document for that. In internet terms, Krell asked for a citation and CPS was unable to provide one. In addition, Krell asked for information on how the city decided to achieve what it calls "selective enforcement tiers", by which high-performing schools are made available to lower-income families as a method for integration. This was another matter about which CPS had indicated its offices were just overflowing with research.
He knew CPS had lots of information on this matter because he'd read about it in the Tribune. In that article, CPS officials boasted about how they'd left no stone unturned in their effort to make the selection process as fair and objective as possible. They said the process considers data such as home-ownership rates in the students' census tracts and the share of homes where English isn't the primary language.
The response to that request? CPS claimed there too it had no documents to turn over. But why? Had Brizard and CPS simply made the statistics and research claims up? To find out, Krell appealed to AG Lisa Madigan, which is exactly what the law indicates you're supposed to do if you get a fishy response to a FOIA request. Madigan's office dutifully asked CPS if such documents had never existed, or if they'd simply been destroyed. CPS responded that they had never maintained those records and they do not exist. The result of that non-answer was for Madigan's office to declare the matter closed.

And that's a problem, because CPS didn't actually answer the AG's question. They do not answer whether or not the documents ever existed at all, only that they never maintained them and they don't exist currently. One way to achieve that answer is for the research to never have actually been done, which would make CPS liars on multiple items it had addressed to parents and the press. Another way is for those documents to have been proactively destroyed instead of maintained, quite possibly so that they'd never have to be revealed for a FOIA request. Either way, that's crappy government. Add to that Madigan's shirking of her responsibility and it's difficult to take Emmanuel seriously when he claims his administration is "the most open, accountable, and transparent government Chicago has ever seen."

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