Jackson Potter wants to know whether Chicago Public Schools is hiding money, and he says by law, the district must answer. CPS has provided some information, but there are questions about whether its latest gesture at transparency is sufficient.
It’s been more than a month since Potter, who is co-chair of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) at the Chicago Teachers’ Union, filed a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act to see all internal communications concerning the budget process. He wants to know why there will be a $600 million budget deficit in the fiscal 2011 budget and how all the school’s funds are being used.
Though the district went public with a list of staff positions and salaries on May 26, Potter has yet to get a direct response to his request.
CPS’s silence led Potter to file a lawsuit on May 20, and he’s still hoping that it will force the district to hand over the budget e-mails.
“With this information, the public can decide whether or not we need 35 students in a classroom or if [Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron] Huberman and his well-paid staff are hiding the money,” Potter said in a press release.
“The problem is that the public doesn’t have access to the process by which they’ve made decisions,” he later explained in an interview. The salary listings are “good,” but they don’t go far enough. “Are they putting their money in a reserve to try and justify a deficit?”
Potter wants insight into how the decision makers who crafted the budget came up $600 million short and how they plan to spend the money they do have.
“They don’t reveal the conversations that took place…and the back-and-forth discussions between Christina Herzog [CPS budget officer] and Huberman, Potter said.
Monique Bond, chief spokeswoman for CPS, said says CPS determined that two of Potter’s three FOIA requests were “unduly burdensome” under the law. The district claims some of its budget information is exempt from FOIA.
But she said some more details will be made public as soon as the budget is finalized.”The budget right now is such a fluid document,” she says. “We’re trying to post as much of the information as possible.” On its website, CPS promises to publish additional budget information within the next 60 to 90 days.
He’s not the only one concerned about the budget. Students, parents, and teachers have held rallies outside the district’s Loop headquarters last month. Meanwhile, the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has intervened at the request of both sides to decide precisely what CPS must provide under the freedom of information law, Potter and Bond said.
Terrance A. Norton, Potter’s lawyer and director of the Center for Open Government at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, said Tuesday the lawsuit will proceed as planned.
Potter filed his first FOIA request for budget communications on April 27. On the same day, he resubmitted a March 27 request for details about the staffing of turnaround schools – ailing schools slated for staff and curriculum changes. Under the state FOIA, anyone can file a request for records from a public body. Some records, including correspondence, may be shielded from the public.
Under FOIA, CPS had five working days to respond with either confirmation or denial of Potter’s requests. Extenuating circumstances allow for an additional five days.
By May 6, when Potter still hadn’t heard anything from CPS’s public information officer, Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office intervened and demanded a reply from the district, CORE said in a news release.
Norton says that CPS has now responded in part to the request for information about turnaround schools but is still in noncompliance with the budget FOIA.
“They could have responded in writing that they needed more time,” Norton says. “There was a way to comply with the law. To my understanding, they didn’t communicate at all.”
CORE, which is a political faction within the teacher’s union, may win the presidency of the Chicago Teachers’ Union after longtime incumbent Marilyn Stewart failed to secure a majority in the May 21 election. The caucus’s candidate, high school teacher Karen Lewis, will face Stewart in a runoff election June 11.
CORE’s FOIA requests come as local publications, including the Chicago Reader, are demanding more information on the CPS budget. By Bonds’ own account, CPS is now awash in FOIA letters.