As Mayor Rahm Emanuel inches toward announcing which of Chicago's public schools he wants to close, it's as good a time as ever to examine the details of his last big education decision.
If only we could.
I'm talking about the mayor's controversial ultimatum last year to lengthen the school day whether teachers, parents, or students liked it or not.
And, as we know, thousands did not. In fact, the longer-day dictate helped bring on the first teachers' strike in 25 years. Thanks again, Mr. Mayor.
Unfortunately, there's no way to examine the details of how and why Mayor Emanuel rammed home the longer day because the internal reports, studies, memos, and analyses governing the decision no longer exist. Or maybe they never did.
One thing is certain: the mayor and schools officials don't want the public to see these records that may or may not exist.
That's one of the conclusions to draw from a yearlong Freedom of Information Act battle between the Chicago Public Schools and Glenn Krell, an intrepid north-side parent.
It started in February 2012, when Krell read a letter sent to parents from Jean-Claude Brizard, the schools CEO at the time, urging them to join the mayor's crusade for a longer day. "Our elementary school students are receiving 22 percent less instruction time than their peers across the country," Brizard wrote.
To Krell that seemed like a definitive pronouncement, indicating that some very precise calculations had been done by the CPS central office.
Out of curiosity he wanted to see them.
"I think it's a legitimate question to ask what was the basis of this important decision," Krell says. "These are not old dusty things. These are ongoing issues which have to be revisited again."
So on March 5 he filed an official FOIA request, seeking "the reports, statistics, comprehensive city-by-city analysis and other documents that back up the statement by Mr. Brizard."
Specifically, Krell wanted to know "which cities were compared" and "what are the lengths of time of the school days in the cities Mr. Brizard cites and how was Mr. Brizard's equation calculated."
In other words, is there any factual basis to Brizard's claims, or was he just sort of, you know, improvising as he went along?
On March 16, Krell received a response from CPS's FOIA officer informing him that "the district does not maintain any documents responsive to your request."
This caught him off guard. Krell had received a very different response in 2009, the last time he'd been down the FOIA path with CPS. In that case, he sought any and all consultants' reports regarding the decision to move his child's school to a different location. Former CEO Arne Duncan refused to release the reports on the grounds that FOIA law exempts "preliminary drafts and opinions." Or, as Duncan put it in his letter to Krell: "This exemption protects the decision-making process by allowing the free flow of information among the decision-makers and the individuals who advise them."
In other words, we have the stuff but we're not going to show it to you.
But when it came to Krell's FOIA on the longer school day, it wasn't clear whether CPS ever had the material to begin with.
Not one to give up easily, Krell took advantage of a "reform" to the FOIA law, passed by the General Assembly in 2009, that authorizes the Illinois attorney general to act as a referee in disputes over information requests.
On March 29, Krell wrote a letter to the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, saying he finds it "difficult to believe" that CPS does not have the documents he requested. He noted that schools officials could provide no evidence to "prove" Brizard's math, "which is what we teach all kids to do."
Krell wrote that he made his request to determine whether CPS officials had "really done their homework" before making their longer-school-day pitch to parents.
You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say that Mr. Krell is just a little bit of a wise guy.
Madigan's office responded favorably. On April 5, Assistant Attorney General Sara Gadola Gallagher notified CPS that "we have determined further inquiry is warranted with regard to this matter."
Hooray for transparency!
Gallagher also requested that CPS confirm whether it had any of the records Krell requested. Even better, "If no such responsive records exist, please explain why CPS does not maintain these records."
But CPS was hardly moved by Gallagher's letter. On April 26, CPS wrote Gallagher explaining that the school district only keeps the records it has to under state education law. "The documents that Mr. Krell has requested are not mandated for retention by these standards."
In other words, that wise guy with his wisecracks can stick his FOIA request where the sun don't shine.
CPS didn't mention which section of the school code protects it from having to maintain documents governing decisions that shape the lives of thousands of parents, teachers, and students.
In any event, Krell wasn't about to roll over. On May 15, he wrote Gallagher urging her to press on with the case and pointing out that CPS's "assertion that all notes were immediately discarded so that no documents exist can only be what Mark Twain called a 'real stretcher.'"
Gallagher responded on July 15, telling Krell that "this matter remains in a queue awaiting determination."
And that, folks, is pretty much where the matter stands—almost one long year after it started. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office tells me it takes a long time to issue a FOIA opinion because staff attorneys want to make sure it will stand up in court.
Hey, no one said the wheels of justice move quickly, especially when it comes to FOIA requests.
Just to let everyone know that he's still on the case, Krell recently sent an e-mail to Gallagher at the AG's office, suggesting that she make CPS specify which section of the school code permits them to throw out important documents.
Actually, now that I think about it, CPS officials haven't definitively said they threw the stuff out—only that they're not required to keep it around.
For all we know, they never had any documents in the first place and Brizard really was just making the stuff up as he went along. Or maybe they produced tons of reports—filled with smoking guns that say what the mayor knew and when he knew it. Maybe those reports are now sitting on Mayor Emanuel's bed stand—you know, so he can read them every night before falling asleep.
Well, it's a possibility. CPS hasn't responded to my request for comment.
In retrospect, Duncan's 2009 response to Krell was more reassuring. Duncan didn't turn over the records—but at least he let us know they existed.
Who knew it would be so difficult getting information from an administration that boasts of being "the most transparent government Chicago has ever seen"?