With Local School Council elections weeks away on April 18 and 19, Chicago Public Schools obstructed their own efforts to promote LSC elections by taking more than a week to make the names of Local School Council candidates available to the press or public, a new low for CPS, according to one of the original authors of the LSC concept.
“I would say their overall pattern during the election period has been to obstruct and limit the number of candidates,” says Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change and one of the authors of the 1988 legislation that created LSCs. Moore, a self-described “irritant” for CPS, has been steadily following Local School Councils and prodding CPS for information for 15 years.
Following the March 23 LSC candidate filing deadline and as part of its LSC election coverage, Center Square Journal requested a copy of the candidate list from CPS only to be told by CPS representatives in the Law Department and the Office of Local School Council Relations that candidate lists would only be available via a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA). CSJ immediately filed a request on March 26.
By law, FOIA requests from media organizations must be fulfilled within five business days or demonstrate a need for a five-day extension. On Tuesday afternoon, after five business days and repeated calls Tuesday to the CPS Law Office, which handles FOIA requests, a representative assured CSJ that the request would be fulfilled, “by the end of today.”
On Wednesday morning CSJ contacted CPS’s Communications office to learn why CPS had not fulfilled the FOIA request and to explain why CPS requires a FOIA request to reveal LSC candidates.
“Our law department has raised concerns because it raises privacy concerns,” says CPS spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus. Later that afternoon the CPS law department decided to fulfill CSJ’s FOIA request and a complete list of candidates was finally provided. [Read about the CSJ-area candidates here and the Roscoe View Journal-area candidates here]
Asked why CPS took over a week to respond and was not prepared to provide a list of candidates on demand, Sainvilus said CSJ was the first to request such a list and that it was the first time the agency had ever considered publicizing who is running for LSC beyond posting lists within individual school walls.
Obtaining a list of candidates for public office is a basic right of the voting public and the press: It’s necessary for citizens to determine for whom they plan to vote, for the press to report on candidates’ qualifications, and for candidates to know their opponents. In elections for any other public office, local governments make candidate lists easily available as a matter of course.
“This practice of demanding FOIAs for information that should simply be publicly available in the case of the elections is something we’ve never seen before,” says Moore.
Moore has experienced similar difficulties obtaining LSC election information from CPS this year. Hearing that candidate recruitment was lagging, Moore’s Designs for Change and 22 other organizations petitioned CPS earlier this spring to release the number of candidates running in school elections.
“They gave us those numbers, which was only a couple thousand [candidates],” says Moore. “We widely circulated it. Then I talked to Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations. He got very irate and said, ‘We were giving you this information because we thought you were cooperating with us. Now that you aren’t cooperating, we are going to require you to FOIA the information like everybody else.’”
CPS spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus denied Montes de Oca’s alleged statement was part of a CPS policy. “We don’t just ask people to file these things willy-nilly. We work with our law department to ensure these requests are necessary,” Sainvilus says.
Eventually, CPS provided Moore the candidate totals, which Center Square Journal and Roscoe View Journal reported on, but until today CPS has not made public the candidate totals since the close of March 23 the candidate filing deadline.
In 2010, Center Square Journal filed FOIA requests for candidate lists and their addresses, which were ultimately fulfilled. But this year, because the candidate recruitment process has been going so poorly, CPS pushed back the candidate filing deadline by two weeks, only three weeks before the election. Now, with only two weeks before the election, CPS is still dragging its feet.
However according to the law that created LSCs, CPS may be entirely within its rights to require FOIAs for candidate lists.
Following an informal analysis of the law, the Illinois Attorney General’s FOIA office told CSJ last week that LSCs are not covered by normal election law. When it comes to promoting LSC candidates, the enacting law for LSCs, 105 ILCS 5/34-2.1, says, “The Council shall publicize the date and place of the election by posting notices at the attendance center, in public places within the attendance boundaries of the attendance center and by distributing notices to the pupils at the attendance center, and shall utilize such other means as it deems necessary to maximize the involvement of all eligible voters.”
No mention about the press, using websites or sending notices to parents at home.
“This whole issue [is] in this election, for the first time much information that’s been routinely available has been kept from the public,” says Moore. “It’s almost as if in an aldermanic election you had to file a FOIA to find out who is running for alderman. This is a level of obstruction that we’ve never seen before.”