Vitale, Byrd Bennett continue to whittle away at democratic participation in public schools' public affairs... How CPS excluded the 'public' from a public meeting -- and then doubletalked about the Open Meetings Act... CPS (again) gives the finger to democracy at Aug 28 meeting

The Chicago Board of Education was scheduled to vote on the largest and most controversial budget in recent history, and so Chicago Public School officials made sure that most members of the public were excluded from the August 28, 2013 meeting, despite the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Prior to the meeting, CPS had quietly promulgated a new "rule" requiring those who wanted to attend the monthly meetings of the Board to "register" on line. It was not possible, under the CPS rules that have been in place since Rahm Emanuel appointed the present Board in May 2011, for members of the general public to register to speak at Board meetings except by using the Internet. The August 28, 2013 meeting, however, was the first time that CPS used its massive security department to physically block hundreds of people who tried to enter the Board for the actual meeting.

Despite the claim by CPS "Communications" chief Becky Carroll that the Board of Education had not violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by excluding hundreds of people from its August 28, 2013 meeting, an investigation by Substance revealed that the "Holding Room" on the 15th floor of CPS headquarters was open, staffed, and virtually empty as the meeting continued during the report on the proposed Budget. Above, the four people who were actually in the 15th Floor Holding Room watching the closed circuit TV report from the meeting being held downstairs on the fifth floor. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.For the past decade or more, CPS has held its meetings in the small "Board Chambers" room on the fifth floor of its headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. in Chicago. Usually the Board fills most of the seats in the room with CPS bureaucrats whose job it is to sit behind the speakers in camera range and smile prettily during the meeting. They are always arranged in an array which Substance once characterized as "Richie's Rainbow" to show a kind of stage-managed diversity in action. African American. White. Latino. Asian. Male. Female. Start over... What those who view the TV version of the meeting see is the well-dressed, smiling people in camera range. What the viewers don't know is that the people on camera are being paid between $80,000 and $150,000 per year to sit there once a month.

Often, the camera seats are filled with a group of people whose annual salaries as public officials exceed a combined total of $2 million. Other bureaucrats are spread across the room, generally filling most of the rest of the available seats. They are thus excluding the actual members of the public.

But the challenge to democracy escalated on August 28, 2013, when most people were blocked by security, who claimed that prior registration was required to even attend the meeting, whether the person was a speaker or not.

According to several people who had been excluded, CPS officials told them that the "Holding Room," a large space on the 15th floor with closed circuit TVs, was "not available."

I checked.

At 11:30 a.m. there were four members of the public and one security person in the 15th Floor "Holding Room," while the TV cameras were broadcasting questions by Board Member Andrea Zopp about the school budget being explained by Tim Cawley in the "Board Chambers" on the fifth floor downstairs.

The sign on the door of the 15th Floor "Holding Room" at CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. claims that the capacity of the room is only 170, but Substance has measured space for more than 300 people in the room itself. On August 28, 2013, while the seven members of the Chicago Board of Education were discussing a $6 billion budget, the room was almost empty (four people plus a security person were inside when Substance visited at 11:30 a.m.), but Weight Watchers knew where to go. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.By then, there was no one left in the lobby trying to get in to what is arguably the most important public meeting the Board holds all year, since the Board Budget is the largest public expenses for a single department in the third largest city in the USA (the City of Chicago's budget is a separate budget).

The claim that Chicago had just begun requiring people to sign up to even attend the meeting had been carefully buried on the Internet and hidden from the public until it was too late. Only one person CPS claimed had not "signed up" was let into the meeting. Ronald Jackson, a South Side community activist and LSC member, insisted that CPS could not exclude him, and he was eventually admitted to the public meeting.

The elimination of the public from a public meeting on August 28, 2013 became "news" to Chicago's corporate media on August 28, 2013, the slow erosion of democracy through technocratic trickery that has been taking place since Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed his seven member Board of Education following his May 2011 inauguration. But it has usually been kept off the news pages. In addition to regularly censoring access to mayoral media events inside the city's public schools, Emanuel's media teams (which includes the CPS "Office of Communications" under former Blagojevich administration official Becky Carroll) has become more and more notorious. When Emanuel visits schools, teachers are warned not to be around wearing CTU red. The censorship is often petty, which Substance calls "Becky Carroll's version of 'Mean Girls of Middle School.' CPS Communications Chief Becky Carroll refuses to send CPS press releases to Substance, despite repeated requests.

For almost a year, the seven members of the Chicago Board of Education have proudly proclaimed their liking for democracy while reveling in eliminating it in practice.

In January 2013, Board President David Vitale announced that the Board would only allow 60 people to register to speak at the Board's public meetings. Then the Board eliminated the ability of the public to register except on line. Chicago's poor and working class families -- possibly the majority of those who might have complaints about the school system, since they are the majority -- do not have home computers. And the city's public libraries do not open until 10:00 or noon, depending upon the branch and community. (The library opening times alternate, with some opening at ten on Tuesday and Thursday and others opening at noon those same days, etc.). Rahm Emanuel shortened public library hours as one of his first acts as mayor in 2011, prompting the resignation of the highly respected libraries chief, Mary Dempsey (who had also worked at one point on CPS business).

The trickery is this.

The "public" can begin to register for speaking at a Board meeting at 8:00 a.m. on the Monday before the Monday before the Board meeting. Hence, registration had to be done after 8:00 a.m. on August 19 for those wishing to speak at the August 28 Board meeting. But the local libraries weren't open for those who didn't have home computers, so they had to wait until 10:00 for the earliest library opening.

By 10:00 the magic number of "60" has always been reached, so those who couldn't register from home or office were effectively excluded from "public participation" by CPS "Policy."

But the sanctimonious trickery under Vitale hasn't ended there.

In the past, the business of the Board began following the so-called "Public Participation." Under Vitale, the official business of the Board now takes place before any member of the public is allowed to speak. The result on August 28 was typical. Four major presentations were given to the Board before "Public Participation" could begin.

As a result of the Vitale policy change, the public speaking on August 28, 2013, did not even begin until ten minutes before one o'clock. Although my notes showed that this was the latest for the beginning of public participation, others told me that the latest had been "around one o'clock."

Members of the public who had arrived early for the meeting were forced to wait nearly three hours after the meeting began before any speakers could speak. Most arrived between 8:00 and 9:00 on August 28, only to learn that they were not welcome.

The limited number allowed to register to speak is only part of how the public is excluded from the public's business. The computer locks out anyone who attempts to register after the magic number of 60 is reached.

Then the Board's policy of "consolidation" kicks in. Under the procedures of the Board meetings, if there are a large number of speakers on one particular topic, the Board Secretary, Estela Beltran (who is showing signs of stress with each passing month) calls on the speakers to "consolidate" and "appoint" one or two people to speak for their "topic" or "side."

The final result is that no more than 30 people have actually spoken during the Public Participation at any meeting since January 2013. A review of the Board's videos (which are also censored) and Substance reporters' notes shows. The result of the trickery and phony math (e.g., "60 people can sign up..." and then the sign up is "closed"), is that the Rahm Emanuel Board of Education has strangled what little democracy had been existing at Chicago Public Schools.

Emanuel's notorious control freak streak shoots across all of the city's governmental agencies, but has been especially evident at CPS. In the city's public schools, a long tradition of cranky democratic participation goes back longer than anyone can remember (and this reporter went to his first meeting of the Chicago Board of Education 40 years ago).

But 2013 has been in many ways unprecedented. While democracy is thwarted at every turn, the seven members of the Board, along with whomever is the current "Chief Executive Officer," repeat well rehearsed talking points about how they want "partners" from everyone.

August 28 was no different, but almost nobody was buying the prattle from Barbara Byrd Bennett about "stakeholders" joining her in going to Springfield for more money. There were too many obvious holes and blatant corruption (e.g., the $20 million SUPES training contract, which involves people tied to Byrd Bennett herself, according to some reports) for anyone to give credibility to any statements from CPS officials.

The violations of the Open Meetings Act on August 28, 2013 just brought the recent attacks on democracy to the attention of a wider public. But even there, the story was minimized, except by a few reporters (including WBEZ and Substance), while one major newspaper (the Tribune) dumped the story from its print edition.

Coverage of the story in the corporate media in Chicago was mixed.

The most complete coverage came from WBEZ radio, and their education reporter Linda Lutton (see below).

Chicago Tribune reporter Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah also covered the story in detail, but her story on the trampling of democracy -- and the hypocrisy which then tried to explain it officially -- was not published in the newspapers August 29, 2013 print edition. The story below only appeared on line.

The Chicago Sun-Times mentioned the problem in one paragraph in its story.

Catalyst did not cover the story itself, but linked to the WBEZ story.


Journalists, citizens say CPS barred people from attending school board meeting. August 28, 2013. By: Linda Lutton. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

A day later, there are still questions swirling about whether Chicago’s school district improperly barred people from Wednesday's school board meeting.

Curtis Lawrence is a veteran reporter and teaches journalism at Columbia College. He and another professor, Suzanne McBride, had trouble getting into the meeting, as did their 11 graduate students.

"We were being told that everyone had to register online in advance," said Lawrence. "Our students from Columbia College eventually got in, we got press passes. But my concern as a journalist and just as a Chicago citizen is what about the school parent who doesn’t have a computer at home and decides they want to come and participate in the process about their kid’s education? They can’t."

Natalie Bauer of the Illinois Attorney General’s office said her office had received no complaints as of Wednesday night. But she said "per the Open Meetings Act, no one should be turned away for failure to register in advance if they want to attend a meeting—if there is space in the room."

People told WBEZ about separate instances in which they saw people turned away by school district employees Wednesday.

"I saw a couple of people who left, because they were saying they would not let them up," said Ronald Jackson, a member of the South Side NAACP. "I told one guy--they can't do this." Jackson is a regular at board meetings and said he has never been turned away before. He said he did register in advance, but security guards told him he wasn't on the list. He then asked for a pass to the school district's Law Department. He said he explained the situation to a staffer there, then was kept waiting for a half hour. He said he was ready to go to jail. "I know they don't have the authority to bar me from an open meeting, whether they like me or not."

Jackson was eventually let into an overflow room with fewer than a dozen other people.

Several months ago, the school district shifted to an online registration system for people wishing to address the board, in part to avoid an excrutiating in-person sign-up process that often meant people had to stand in line beginning at 6 a.m., or even before. At the same time the board instituted the online speaker registration system, it asked people to register just to attend the board meeting.

Vince Casillas, comunity outreach manager at the Illinios Network of Charter Schools, brought parents with him to Wednesday's board meeting from various charter schools, but one parent was denied access and went home. Casillas says he didn't challenge the decision. "I mean, we were a little disappointed, but she'll be back next time, hopefully we'll have her properly registered and ready to go." The school district issued a statement Wednesday evening saying it is updating its guidelines to show that it requests—but does not require— advance registration. "Any member of the public who wishes to attend the Board meeting can do so without registering in advance given that there is adequate space in Board chambers and its overflow room," a district spokeswoman said in an email.

Attendance at Wednesday’s board meeting was lower than normal. About 250 demonstrators outside did not try to enter the meeting.

Suzanne McBride wonders how much damage was done. "No one knows how many people they turned away," she said.


New rule to attend CPS meetings draws complaints. By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Tribune reporter. 8:11 p.m. CDT, August 28, 2013

A new requirement that participants sign up online to attend the monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting drew complaints Wednesday and claims the district is violating the Open Meetings Act.

Ronald Jackson, a regular at CPS board meetings, said he had signed up before the meeting but was turned away by security guards who couldn’t find his name on a list. Jackson asked to see the district’s legal department. Eventually, he was allowed into the meeting.

Jackson said many others who tried to attend the meeting Wednesday where CPS was voting on its budget for fiscal year 2014 ended up leaving after being denied entry.

“I shouldn’t have to be harassed,” Jackson said. “District policy doesn’t override state and federal laws.”

Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, said government agencies can ask for people to sign up to speak at public meetings, or even require people to sign up to get a count on attendance. But they cannot deny someone entry into a public meeting because they have not signed up beforehand.

“The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is that deliberations take place in public, and the public may attend the meeting as an observer, Judar said. “It would be in contravention of the Open Meetings Act to limit that availability to a select few. They shouldn’t be turning people away for lack of signing up.”

The district’s guidelines stated people who wanted to speak or even observe board meetings “must register in advance of the day of the meeting.”

CPS officials said later Wednesday they will be amending their guidelines to make it clear that the public is not required to sign up in advance in order to attend the board meeting.

“Our goal is to ensure the safety and accommodate the needs of all attending our monthly Board of Education meetings,” said CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll. “That is why we are requesting, but not requiring, that members of the public planning to attend these meetings to register in advance so we can best prepare to accommodate all visitors on those days. Any member of the public who wishes to attend the Board meeting can do so without registering in advance given that there is adequate space in Board chambers and its overflow room."


August 29, 2013 at 9:50 AM

By: Jean Schwab

Missed meeting

I came downtown to go to the CPS Board meeting and ended up at the rally. I was told that I had not signed up on the web.

It is interesting how something is so important after they have been taken away.

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