Back in April, a north-side resident named Nick Burt filed a public records request with Chicago Public Schools, seeking internal e-mails and other information regarding the firing of Troy LaRaviere.
The former principal of Blaine Elementary School, LaRaviere, an outspoken critic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school policies, had been suspended without pay over a variety of unspecified accusations.
"I think they fired LaRaviere for speaking out," Burt says. "So I filed the FOIA request to see what I might find."
Six months and one lawsuit later, CPS finally sent Burt a bunch of newspaper clippings and TV news reports about LaRaviere's dismissal In other words, it sent Burt what he could have easily have obtained on his own from any old Internet search.
It might as well have just given him the middle finger.
Welcome to another chapter in the ongoing public records saga of CPS versus citizen activists in the age of Mayor Emanuel, who came into office back in 2011 vowing to run "the most transparent government Chicago has ever seen."
If I could put a positive spin on it, I'd say Rahm's forcing activists to get better at these fights by making it increasingly difficult for them to obtain the information they seek.
Think of him as the absentee father in Shel Silverstein's classic song "A Boy Named Sue," who in a roundabout way teaches his son to fend for himself by giving him a girl's name that the bullies love to tease him about.
The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to require public bodies like CPS to turn over public information. In reality, FOIA requests can become cat-and-mouse games, with officials turning the process into a bureaucratic obstacle course in an effort to keep information from the public.
And let me tell you, Mayor Rahm and his school appointees are masters of this game.
Before I dive into the details of Burt’s case, let's just run through a list of some of the intrepid citizen activists who came before him.
There's Glenn Krell, a north-side parent who waged a yearlong FOIA campaign to get CPS to turn over any studies justifying its claims as to why Chicago needed a longer school day. CPS never sent him any, claiming that it had destroyed them. Sorry 'bout that, man.
Then there's the 2013 case of Joanna Brown, a Logan Square activist who wanted information about the closing of Ames Middle School. After holding out for eight months, CPS sent Brown a blank piece of paper.
Jarrett Dapier, a graduate student in library science, had better luck. In 2014 he filed a FOIA request seeking internal documents regarding CPS's 2013 decision to ban Persepolis—Marjane Satrapi's award-winning graphic novel—from classrooms and school libraries. CPS pulled back on the ban after it sparked a public outcry.
CPS sent Dapier a batch of heavily redacted e-mails that were virtually impossible to read. However, the redactions were only computer generated highlights, and Dapier was able to remove them and see the e-mails that CPS didn't want him to see. Those e-mails revealed that top CPS officials had ordered Persepolis removed from the shelves, contradicting the official CPS line that the book had been mistakenly banned by some unnamed central office bureaucrat who had misunderstood what he or she had been directed to do.
Dapier turned the e-mails over to me. I wrote a column. And in June, the American Library Association awarded Dapier its John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award "for defending the principles of intellectual freedom." I'm surprised the mayor didn't send out a press release, like he usually does when one of our locals does well.
In each of these cases, a citizen filed a FOIA request because he or she didn't believe CPS's official explanation for what it was doing. The same is true in Burt's case.
Burt's not a teacher or CPS parent. He's a former Occupy LaSalle Street activist who, incidentally, says he was arrested when Emanuel ordered police to clear Grant Park of Occupy protesters in 2012. So you might say this is payback.
For the record, Burt says he's never discussed the FOIA request with LaRaviere, whom he's only met in passing. Likewise, LaRaviere says he had nothing to do with Burt's FOIA request.
"Until I read about it on Facebook, I didn't know anything about it," he says.
Now let's dive into the details. On April 26, Burt sent CPS a FOIA request asking for "copies of documents" having to do with LaRaviere, Blaine, or Bernie Sanders, for whom LaRaviere taped a campaign commercial slamming the mayor in March. Burt admits he was on a "fishing expedition, looking for whatever they had."
On April 28, CPS denied his request as "unduly burdensome." Eventually, he narrowed his request to e-mails regarding LaRaviere that had been exchanged by 18 high-ranking CPS officials, including CEO Forrest Claypool.
CPS didn't respond to his narrowed FOIA request. So Burt filed an appeal with the Illinois attorney general's office, as FOIA law permits.
A lawyer there wrote to CPS, asking the district if it had received Burt's most recent request. CPS didn't respond to the attorney general, either.
On September 7, Burt and his lawyer, Daniel Massoglia, filed a lawsuit in Cook County court, demanding that CPS turn over the information he'd requested.
Two days later, the Sun-Times wrote an article about the lawsuit. Lo and behold, on September 13, CPS e-mailed Burt more than 300 pages of newspaper clippings and news reports that central office press aides had gathered on the LaRaviere case.
Of course, CPS could have sent Burt those clippings way back in May. But where's the fun in giving a guy something without making him really work for it? (CPS didn't respond for comment.)
Burt says he's going to press on with his lawsuit.
If he wins, CPS—meaning taxpayers—will have to pay Massoglia's legal fees.
It's good to see someone may benefit from the mayor's school policies. v