Sept. 12, 2014

Mary Frances O’Connor (312) 821-9026
Robert Herguth (312) 821-9030

CHICAGO—Chicago Public Schools is tasked with educating hundreds of thousands of children.

But those running the taxpayer-funded educational system may need a lesson on following the law known as the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which guarantees public access to records in the possession of CPS and other public agencies.

CPS has a long history of ignoring FOIA requests and blowing through legally established deadlines to comply with them, according to government records. (In most circumstances, public bodies have five business days to turn over records upon request.)

With that as a backdrop, the Better Government Association and NBC 5 filed a lawsuit against CPS on Sept. 5, alleging the school system “has willfully and intentionally violated FOIA by failing to respond to FOIA requests” by the BGA and NBC 5.

The suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, states CPS “has systemically failed to comply with FOIA requests in a timely manner and requires Court-supervised remedial changes to correct this systemic failure and achieve the transparency required under FOIA.”

Andy Shaw, the BGA’s president and CEO, said: “CPS officials should know better – they expect school children to follow the rules and they should do the same. The law is clear: The public has a right to examine records in the possession of public agencies. CPS has no right to delay, ignore or withhold information from taxpayers and the press.”

“If we were issuing grades, we’d give CPS’ FOIA process an ‘F,’” Shaw added.

One of the FOIA requests included within the lawsuit involved the BGA, this past April, asking for “copies of any and all settlement agreements, severance agreements and termination agreements approved or adopted from Jan. 1, 2013, until present.”

A CPS FOIA officer responded by calling the request unduly burdensome, incorrectly claiming the BGA had not specified a time frame.

The BGA sent an email pointing out there indeed was a time frame specified, but then never heard back.

Similarly, NBC submitted a FOIA request last December for information on CPS buildings, including a list of those that are closed and the cost to heat them.

CPS asked for additional time to respond and then “failed to provide any further response,” according to the lawsuit.

The complaint notes there have been dozens of instances in which CPS failed to respond to other FOIA requests until after the requester asked the Illinois attorney general to intervene. Many of those violations occurred after the attorney general issued a rare binding opinion scolding CPS for failing to comply with the law.

For more on the BGA’s legal actions, please see:
The Better Government Association is a Chicago-based nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group that works for integrity, transparency and accountability in government by exposing corruption and inefficiency; identifying and advocating effective public policy; and engaging and mobilizing the public to achieve authentic and responsible reform.