Chicago, IL

Attempt to Force Chicago Public School Officials to Attend Council Meetings in Order to Receive City Funds Fails

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Chicago Council push to remedy infrequent appearances by CPS officials at meetings by compelling them to attend through temporarily withholding allocated funds unsuccessful
Daniel X. O'Neil/flickr (CC 2.0)

Some of Chicago’s Alderman would like to find a way to make Chicago Public School officials meet with the council once a quarter to be able to discuss issues of concern. However, Wed. the ordinance failed.

The City Council called a meeting to vote on amending a Municipal Code that addressed quarterly hearings on operations and performance of CPS as well as to hold such a hearing during the Wed. meeting with CPS CEO and the administrative team.

This ordinance and the call for a hearing resulted from the recent Chicago budget deliberations although this is a problem that is longstanding. The ordinance was proposed by Alderwoman Sophia King (Ward 4), after she became frustrated with CPS’s failure to respond to any of her budget related questions.

At the beginning of the meeting, it became clear that the hearing would not occur today due to the CPS officials again not being in attendance. The only representative from the school appeared as a public speaker. This was Charles “Chuck” Swirsky, Senior Advisor to the CEO for CPS. Additionally, two lawyers were in attendance representing the Chicago School Board and CPS.

Swirski stated he was there on behalf of CPS to address the recent invitation to testify. He began by noting that when they received the request to testify, CPS responded by requesting that an agenda be established. He said that they did not receive an agenda nor was a jointly agreed upon date for the meeting set. According to Swirski, CPS were recently informed of the ordinance which would restrict them from receiving city funding should the CEO and Board of Education President not attend quarterly meetings in order to testify.

Swiski went on to say that the mission of CPS is to provide a quality education for all students. For operational excellence, he said, they needed equitable resources and facilities. Currently, CPS has $4 Billion deferred facilities maintenance waiting to be done and they couldn’t afford to have that money held up. He claimed that the ordinance would prevent CPS from living up to the promises made in their 5-year plan including replacing HVAC, updating labs, and repairing bathrooms among other maintenance tasks. He stated that students would lose out on all of these capital improvements if this ordinance goes through. He suggested the required meetings were unnecessary saying, “You know us, we know you, and you have our numbers.”

Ald. King said a lot of these problems could have been easily avoided if staff would agree to collaborate in a transparent nature. According to King, she had attempted to have a conversation in a nonpolitical way by calling CPS CEO Pedro Martinez and they’d spoken the previous month in person. Ald. King said that Martinez replied he would attend this meeting with his team. Hearing nothing further, Ald. King contacted Martinez several weeks before the start of the budget hearings saying they went back and forth on dates. She presented agenda items and asked them to do so as well but stated she felt she got “stonewalled.” She said she was not able to get information on how the CPS budget request and allocations affect the general budget and that none of her questions were answered before the budget was voted on.

Ald. King responded to the strong opposition from Swisky by saying the possibility of resources being withheld could easily be alleyed if CPS officials would just show up for meetings when they are called to testify. She wants the two bodied to work together collaboratively and not need to use consequences but she also said they have a responsibility to know where the large sum of money they allocated to CPS goes.

She said for example, questions she couldn’t get answered during this budget season were related to such areas as how school opened, attendance issues, what percentage of children are engaged and disengaged, transportation challenges, how CPS spent their $9 billion budget from last year and how the city council could help CPS.

Ald King added that the two bodies need to be able to talk about substantive issues without it being controlled by politics and come up with solutions. She said that if CPS relies on the cities resources to thrive, they need to be responsive to the council. “CPS does not operate wholly independently of us,” she said.

Some members wanted to table the vote until everyone had a good chance to look at it. Roll call on motion to table which was defeated. Then they took the vote on the substitute ordinance which was tied

Some of what seemed to be getting in the way of the ordinance was that many of the aldermen weren’t clear on the details related to the ordinance, and concerns related to exactly what the ordinance would require if the CEO’s presence was requested and he didn’t show. The lawyers in attendance didn’t seem to have all the answers either and several aldermen became confused with different answers for the same question were given. The attorneys seemed to have difficulty answering questions when aldermen asked for examples or scenarios.

The attorney for the Chicago School Board said that council has no authority over the board of education and they can’t command them to show up legally. This became a confrontation, with the attorney using scare tactics suggesting legal actions. Ald. King said the council needs their own attorney in future meetings and that if they give the board millions of dollars a year, they have the right and more so, the responsibility to know where the money is going.

A motion to table the vote on the ordinance so that all the aldermen could become fully informed on the details of how it would be put into place failed. The vote on the ordinance was taken and as the vote was tied, it too failed.

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Chicago, IL

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