WEST LOOP — When Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools officials announced a plan Wednesday night to expand an overcrowded elementary school in the red-hot West Loop, no reporters were allowed to hear it.
That's because they were barred from the public meeting, a move one media expert says is a clear violation of Illinois' Open Meetings Act.
Stephanie Lulay describes getting kicked out of the CPS meeting.
With most of Skinner West Elementary Local School Council members, Emanuel, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) and other city leaders present, CPS security barred reporters from entering the public meeting where leaders announced the city's plan to expand overcrowded Skinner West.
The multimillion dollar public school expansion will be funded with public tax dollars, Burnett said after the meeting.
WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp and Sun-Times reporter Andy Grimm were barred from entering the public meeting. This DNAinfo reporter was escorted out of the meeting by uniformed CPS security guards.
When asked why the DNAinfo reporter was being removed, a CPS representative told her: "This is part of CPS policy tonight. They don't want any media inside the building."
Reporters on site asked CPS security guards to speak with CPS media officials but were denied.
Public meeting for public purpose
By barring reporters from the public meeting, CPS officials violated the Open Meetings Act, said Don Craven, longtime attorney for the Illinois Press Association.
According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, a state law that protects the peoples' right to be informed on public business, a meeting must be open to the public whenever "a majority of a quorum of a public body" comes together with the "purpose of discussing public business."
With the ability to hire and fire principals, elected LSCs are "clearly a public body" and an arm of CPS, Craven said.
And because most of the 11-member Skinner Local School Council was present at the meeting for the "purpose of discussing public business" — a Skinner West expansion funded by public tax dollars — the meeting qualifies as a meeting that is open to the public — a public that includes residents and reporters alike.
So why were reporters banned? In an email, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said that the meeting was for parents of students at the school and their teachers.
"LSC members may be in attendance because they're parents and teachers. But this isn't an LSC meeting," Bittner wrote.
But the Open Meetings Act doesn't work like that, said Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, a group dedicated to making government more accountable.
"An LSC is subject to the Open Meetings Act. [CPS] can't subvert the Open Meetings Act by claiming the LSC members were wearing a different hat," Judar said. "That decision-making power doesn't go away just because [CPS] says 'now they are parents.'"
Additionally, by design, Skinner's LSC has two members who are community members without kids at the school, meaning they are not "parents" of the school.
Craven, who specializes in First Amendment law, also said CPS' explanation is "hocum."
"The gathering was a public meeting. They can't kick [reporters] out," he said.
Judar acknowledged that public bodies try all kinds of ways to subvert the Open Meetings Act, and that a judge or public access counselor would have to review the minute facts of the Skinner West case — including where the LSC members were standing and if they were talking — to rule that a violation indeed occurred.
The Skinner West LSC members were announced at the meeting, and were standing next to each other at the side of the school's gym.
About 100 community members, some of whom are not parents or teachers at Skinner, also attended the meeting. Parents of Skinner's 1,000 students were notified of the meeting by Principal Deborah Clark, according to parents.
At best, CPS' move was bad practice. At worst, it was illegal, Judar said.
"In any case, there's no excuse to bar the media from an open meeting," she said. "And from a public relations perspective, it just looks really bad. Talk about control freaks."
The Skinner West Local School Council was not notified that the press would be banned from the meeting, according to a source close to the LSC.
Why so secretive?
The move to ban reporters from the CPS meeting at the part selective-enrollment school, part neighborhood school had some in the West Loop questioning why CPS would want to keep the press out.
Is it because the meeting was light on real details, including how the expansion project would be funded?
After the meeting, parents said city leaders did not reveal how the expansion would be paid for or how much it would cost. Burnett said it would likely not be funded through tax increment financing dollars and could in part be funded by the city's new Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program.
Were reporters banned because the announcement at the prestigious school in the wealthy West Loop, bursting at the seams, according to parents, was politically inconvenient for the mayor?
The move to expand Skinner comes just seven years after the school was rebuilt with the help of TIF funding to add a neighborhood component and three years after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 Chicago schools, including many on the West Side.
Karp and Becky Vevea argued in their WBEZ report that the expansion perpetuates CPS' racial and economic divide.
And other elementary schools, including Bridge Elementary in Dunning, are considered more crowded by CPS' own standards.
According to a January report, Skinner West's 120 percent capacity CPS categorized as "efficient," not "overcrowded."
Schools measured at 121 percent capacity were labeled as "overcrowded" in the report.
Was it because the Skinner West expansion plan wasn't spelled out in the CPS' new update to the Educational Facilities Masters Plan, released just last week?
Among specific priorities at other nearby schools, including improving the interior at Brown Elementary, the CPS plan for Near West Side investments vaguely states that CPS will aim to address space concerns at schools facing overcrowding over the next 10 years.
Or was it because the public meeting wasn't posted in a public place in a timely manner, according to Open Meetings Act rules?
After announcing the expansion, Emanuel said he's attended a number of meetings at CPS schools.
"I've never seen a 24-hour turnout like this," he said to the crowd of 100 residents.
At the meeting, which one resident was allowed to record via Facebook live, the longtime principal said Skinner aims to be the premier school in the city of Chicago, serving as a model.
"We know many of us cannot afford to live in the West Loop, and some people can. And they deserve a fantastic school," Clark said.
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