The following is an e-mail education activist Matt Farmer sent to Asst. Attorney General Tola Sobitan detailing his ongoing FOIA battle with Chicago Public Schools, reprinted with his permission. Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.
Ms. Tola Sobitan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Assistant Attorney General — Public Access Bureau
100 W. Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60601
VIA ELECTRONIC MAIL ONLY
Dear Ms. Sobitan:
On June 21, 2012, Mayor Emanuel announced that “Clemente Community Academy High School will become the third, wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate (IB) school” in Chicago. The mayor’s press release noted that “[t]he decision to convert Clemente into a wall-to-wall IB school was made after significant engagement with the Humboldt Park community and discussions with key community stakeholders.” (Emphasis added.)
On June 27, I served a Freedom of Information Act request upon the FOIA officer for Chicago Public Schools requesting all documents relating to CPS’s decision to turn Clemente High School into a “wall-to-wall” IB school.
As part of my request, I asked for “all correspondence between CPS and the International Baccalaureate Organization discussing or referencing Clemente High School, as well as any applications or ‘interested schools forms’ that CPS/Clemente completed, any ‘feasibility study’ that CPS/Clemente conducted on the possible consequences of implementing the program . . . all documents that relate to CPS’s plans to staff the IB program at Clemente . . . all documents [that relate to] projections regarding enrollment in the Clemente program, as well as the anticipated costs of developing and housing such a program at Clemente . . . all CPS communications with the Mayor’s office and Alderman Moreno’s office about the plan to convert Clemente into a ‘wall-to-wall IB program’ . . . any memos, studies, or emails that discuss CPS’s plans for students who may be displaced by CPS’s decision to convert Clemente into a ‘wall-to-wall IB program,’ as well as documents relating to CPS’s plans to provide academic support for Clemente students who may struggle with the new program.”
As you know, CPS initially ignored my request. CPS was required by law to respond within 5 business days, but it chose not to do so. By law, CPS also had the opportunity to seek a 5-day extension, but it did not ask for one.
I twice e-mailed Cassandra Daniels, CPS’s FOIA officer – once on Tuesday, July 10 and once on Friday, July 13 – and asked her when CPS was going to respond to my request. Those e-mails went unanswered. In addition, I telephoned her twice and left detailed messages about the same topic – once on Friday, July 13 and once on Monday, July 16 – but again my calls went unanswered.
I finally contacted the Office of the Attorney General on Monday, July 16 and asked your office to review CPS’s failure to respond to my request. I had a brief phone conversation with one of your fellow attorneys about this matter on July 25, and just minutes after hanging up the phone with her, I received a belated e-mail response from CPS stating: “The CPS has performed a diligent search for any documents responsive to your request for information. However, at this time, no documents could be found. Attached please find a copy of CPS’s district wide projected enrollment data with Clemente High School’s enrollment highlighted in yellow.”
On August 3, I asked your office to review CPS’s belated and anemic response. I told your office at that time that the “CPS response does not pass the ‘straight-face test.'” On August 31, you determined that “further review” was warranted, and you notified CPS of that decision.
On September 6, CPS changed tactics. Rather than stick with its original plan — stonewall and then deny the existence of responsive documents — CPS elected to play a shell game.
Despite the mayor’s unambiguous June 21 announcement in which he said “Clemente . . . will become the third, wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate (IB) school” in Chicago and noted that “[t]he decision to convert Clemente into a wall-to-wall IB school was made after significant engagement with the Humboldt Park community and discussions with key community stakeholders,” (emphasis added) CPS decided, in its September 6 letter, to characterize the mayor’s June announcement as one that “is not final.”
Why? Because CPS may now be looking to shield responsive documents under the FOIA exemption for preliminary drafts, notes, or recommendations.
CPS’s new hook for claiming that the Clemente decision is “not final” is a single sentence in the mayor’s June 21 press release: “In March, Mayor Emanuel and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced the District would open five new IB programmes in neighborhood schools and five wall-to-wall IB schools in fall of 2013 with final authorization set for 2016.”
CPS now argues that because “authorization” is set for 2016, nothing is final and therefore all responsive documents (none of which seemed to exist as of July 25) fall within the exemption for drafts, notes and recommendations.
Here’s what you need to understand about that 2016 “authorization.” It will be done by the International Baccalaureate Organization, not by CPS.
Authorization by IBO is a multi-step, multi-year process. CPS will need to show IBO that CPS and the Clemente staff have their ducks in a row — specifically, that they’ve complied with IBO’s requirements and can demonstrate that the ongoing Clemente program warrants IBO’s final stamp of approval.
The question whether IBO will put its final “authorization” on Clemente’s “wall-to-wall IB program” in 2016 cannot possibly shield any of CPS’s responsive documents from my June 2012 FOIA request.
Equally troubling is CPS’s attempt to avoid producing responsive e-mails.
CPS now seems to be backing off its July 25 contention that there are no responsive documents. In its September 6 response to your office, Ms. Daniels stated that “the CPS does not have the capacity to search 40,000 employee e-mail addresses for communications using key words.”
That’s a red herring. Think about it.
The 40,000 employees who use CPS’s email system include math teachers in Bronzeville, building engineers in Sauganash, and school nurses in Pilsen. I think we can agree that those folks would have had zero involvement in the decision to transform Clemente into an IB school. So there’s simply no need to search 40,000 employee e-mail addresses. CPS’s FOIA officer knows better.
But pay attention to what Ms. Daniels didn’t tell you in her September 6 response. She didn’t say: “CPS has identified the 8 (or 10 or 12) individuals who were involved in the decision to transform Clemente into an IB school. Having identified each of those individuals, we searched not only their e-mail files, but also their paper files for documents relating to the Clemente transformation. We found nothing responsive in those files, and each of those individuals confirmed that they’d neither created nor seen any responsive documents.”
You didn’t get an affidavit to that effect from anyone at CPS. Instead, you got the old “we can’t search 40,000 e-mail addresses” refrain.
Don’t fall for it. The Clemente IB decision was not made by random lunch ladies or gym teachers; it was made by high-ranking CPS officials.
Indeed, CPS’s September 6 response is intentionally hazy. Are there potentially responsive documents that CPS is now withholding? If not, why did CPS even bother raising the exemptions for drafts, notes and recommendations?
If your office’s review is to have any teeth — and, believe it or not, a lot of reporters around town following this story hope it will — CPS initially needs to identify for you who within its organization was involved in the decision to convert Clemente, who within the organization took part in the “significant engagement with the Humboldt Park community and discussions with key community stakeholders,” and who within the organization was involved in the decision to fire roughly twenty Clemente teachers just days after the mayor issued his June press release. Only then will CPS be able to assure you in any meaningful manner that its “search” for responsive documents was legitimate and thorough, and that its decision to withhold documents — if it is now doing so — is justified.
Mayor Emanuel reminds us regularly about his role as a responsible “steward” of taxpayers’ money. Surely, he wouldn’t allow his hand-picked Board of Education and CPS leadership team to make major decisions about the future of certain Chicago high schools without as much as a single e-mail being generated — particularly when we’re dealing with a revolving-door organization like CPS, where (as Catalyst’s Sarah Karp recently noted) “[l]ess than a quarter of the people who worked at district headquarters at 125 S. Clark Street in 2010 are still working there.” With such churn-and-burn turnover, there has to be documentation for such significant decisions, if only to ensure an institutional memory that will survive Mr. Brizard and Mr. Cawley.
Decisions that will affect the lives of thousands of kids and will involve millions of taxpayer dollars cannot be made without some paper trail.
Can they, Mayor Emanuel? Can they, Mr. Brizard?