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The Bulldog at the Gate

Journalists say new CPS flack Monique Bond is making it harder to report on the schools. Is that what she was hired to do?

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"You were never supposed to talk to the media," says an educator with decades of experience in the Chicago Public Schools. "Some did and some didn't, and a lot of the old-timers who were willing to take risks are gone. This is not an atmosphere where risk taking is encouraged."

CPS protocol advises any principal or other underling approached by a reporter to say nothing before conferring with the communications office. While Arne Duncan ran the schools, this protocol was often ignored. But reporters say that today, under Ron Huberman, officials who used to talk no longer talk, and the cunning and persistence of the investigative reporter has become a requisite for covering the education beat. "I have to call people at home for utterly benign questions, and let them speak not for attribution to confirm basic facts," says one reporter who asked not to be named. "Since Paul Vallas, we've had the CEO's cell phone number or e-mail. I don't have Huberman's cell phone number or e-mail. The only way to get to him is stalk him."

Why? I asked. "Huberman's not comfortable with media," I was told. "But Monique Bond is definitely a large part of it."

As Duncan's successor, Ron Huberman is ultimately the public face of Chicago Public Schools, but Monique Bond runs the communications office for him. She's the one reporters deal with. She's who can drive them nuts.

The educator offered me a context for thinking about Bond's service to the public schools. I heard the atmosphere at CPS is pervaded by trepidation: a lot of old faces have vanished, while new, young, and inexperienced faces popped up in positions of command. "I've had people I've talked to for years whose voice will literally shake when I get hold of them, and they'll say, 'I can't say anything,'" says another Chicago reporter who frequently covers the schools. "They're laying off hundreds of people, especially at the central office, and job security is really high on people's list. As much as they might not agree with what Huberman's doing, they don't want to be out there trying to find a job."

Transparency is a virtue throughout government, and the need for it is especially compelling in public education, where every policy change affects the lives of tens of thousands of children. But openness doesn't thrive in a climate of fear. Huberman took over as chief executive officer of CPS in January after a couple of years running the CTA, and Bond, who'd been in charge of news affairs at the police department, joined him in February. After a while I began hearing that the flow of news out of CPS had all but dried up under Bond, that everyone was afraid to say anything to the media, and that Bond was gaining a reputation among reporters as more of an obstacle than a conduit.

"I'll give you a couple of examples," says Lorraine Forte, editor of Catalyst Chicago, the independent magazine that covers the public schools. "I was at an event not long ago where there were some top CPS officials and I wanted to ask them a couple of basic questions, and their response was, 'Talk to Monique.' Another thing: we'd asked for detailed information on budget cuts, and it took several weeks to get it—I'd say more than a month—and that was after the people had already been laid off. There was a report on the progress of a dropout initiative," the Freshmen On-Track Lab Project. "We were stalled, we were told, 'It's a draft report, we'll get back to you.' That report is now just an internal report and we can't get it. So who knows what it says! That says to me it probably doesn't say anything good.

"Principals now are leery of talking, more so than they were," Forte continues. "They say, 'I have to check with communications first.'"

The Reader's Ben Joravsky, who's been calling CPS spokespeople since the 80s, says he's never run into anyone like Bond there. The last time Joravsky called her it was about a plan to tear down the gym and pool at Collins High to build a velodrome for the Olympics. "They totally stonewalled me," he says. "I thought, This is a shame. They're bringing City Hall tactics to the Board of Education."

Huberman, like Duncan before him, has no background in education. But then, CPS has been taken over by "really bright young people with minimal experience," the educator interviewed at the start of this column tells me. People like that make familiar mistakes, and one of them is to think the way to get their hands around a massive and complex institution is to reduce it to numbers. "Everything's about data now," said the educator regretfully. "It's got to be measurable."

Another common mistake of brainy parvenus is to think they need to be left alone to work their wonders. If data rules at CPS, the media want the data, because they intend to hold CPS's new managers accountable. And to the extent Bond makes that harder to do, regardless of whether it's her nature or her instructions, reporters fume.

The educator mentioned a detail emblematic of the confusion inside CPS: 11 months after Huberman took over as CEO, there's still no organization chart. "Usually, the first thing people do when they come in is publish an organization chart so you know who to reach. There are so many new people [in CPS], and there are very few people who know what's going on."

"We're working on that right now," says Monique Bond. "It should be released very soon."

Peter Cunningham, who ran the communications office under Arne Duncan and now works for him in the Obama administration, shrewdly insisted on transparency. "I 100 percent believe that every question should be answered," Cunningham tells me, promptly returning my call to his Washington office even though he happens to be in Hawaii. "Ninety-nine times out of 100 you got to tell the truth, and the 100th time you don't need a PR guy, you need a lawyer."

Reporters had Duncan's cell phone number, and when they left messages they knew he'd get back to them, even at unlikely times like 7:30 in the morning. Cunningham and his number two, Mike Vaughn, didn't drop the protocol, but they let it out a couple notches. They wanted a policy person in headquarters explaining policy to reporters, but principals were certainly entitled to talk about their schools. Their advice to principals contacted by reporters, Cunningham says, "was to call us first and let us know what it's about. But that was not a mandate. It was strictly a suggestion. We just may know a lot more things about the reporter and where they're coming from than you will. Sometimes the principals know the reporters well, and we're fine with that.

"The policy I had," Cunningham continues, "was that anybody could talk to the press, but if they talk to the press without talking to me and screw it up, it's their fault. If they let me know first and I advise them and they screw it up, it's my fault. But I never believed in restricting access to people—we're all public servants."

He recalls a principal who was quoted as saying that instead of cutting school programs, Duncan should cut the bureaucracy. "That wasn't helpful, but it was legitimate," Cunningham says. "The cuts were having an impact on his school, and he was free to talk about it. I have to be honest—a lot of people said, 'Do you want to have that policy?' and I said, 'Yes. I know there will be a few times the policy bites us, but a lot more times reporters will be grateful to have access.'"

Joravsky remembers Cunningham not only as forthcoming on the record but off the record walking him through political context for the matter at hand. In the Arne Duncan era, reporters would wonder from time to time if Duncan was getting better coverage than he deserved, given the massive problems that continued to burden Chicago's public schools. But Duncan got that kind of coverage, and today's he's secretary of education.

Once an aide to Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, Monique Bond came to Chicago to help run media logistics during the '96 Democratic National Convention and stayed. In '97 she took over communications for Chicago's aviation department; she moved on to Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications and then to the police department before joining Huberman at CPS. A reporter who dealt with her at police news affairs says that to Bond "no news is good news because any story could turn into a bad story."

When I called Bond, she told me nothing at the CPS communications office has changed from Duncan's day, at least not formally. "When I got here it seemed there was already a system in place," she said. "I found a lot of principals automatically called the office of communications. I think that is a very good coordination process. Sometimes there are issues a principal or teacher is not comfortable speaking about. We kind of serve as the conduit to get out as much information as we can."

Under Duncan, I said, principals were free to talk to reporters about matters at their schools. As an example, I proposed a reporter calling the principal of Fenger High to ask about student violence there. It was the wrong example. "That's a topic that's probably not going to be an easy one to discuss, and it's one that's in the midst of a lot of policy changes," said Bond. "So that's not one to ask about—like a coat drive. Sometimes a policy could be interpreted the wrong way, and may be perceived the wrong way once the public reads it, and that may not be the way the teacher or principal wanted it to be, which is why it's always a good idea for the teacher or principal to coordinate."

She doesn't think principals or other educators are frightened. "I believe they're just being cautious," she says. "They're being good managers by wanting to take the extra step by wanting to coordinate with the office of communications. The last thing we want to have is the wrong information to be expressed." She spoke of the value of having "everybody on the same page" and exercising "an abundance of caution."

As for transparency, Bond said CPS was transparent before she and Huberman got there and they're making it more transparent by posting educational data on the CPS Web site. "There's information that they're requesting that's online," Bond said, speaking of the press, "but they want even more detailed explanations or they want an explanation on a certain area of it. And that requires time, and it requires getting back to the reporter and explaining it so when the story's told it makes sense. I try to get the experts to do that when and if they're available."

As Bond describes what she does it sounds earnest and dutiful. As reporters describe it, it's like pulling teeth.

I e-mailed Bond back with three questions: What's online now and what will be online? Is the Freshman On-Track Lab data going online? And did the process of putting information online begin with Huberman or earlier?

She replied promptly: "Most of the educational programs, initiatives, grades data + yearly progress information are posted on line, by school. Additionally, we are trying to post as much information as possible on the CPS.edu website, and are in the process of evaluating the most requested information so that it's accessible to reporters and the public. CPS contracts is one example of a frequent request and we will be posting contracts on line soon."

Which was all well and good, but she didn't answer two of my three questions.   

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