Journalists, citizens say CPS barred people from attending school board meeting

August 28, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
The overflow room at Chicago Public Schools headquarters, shortly after the school board meeting began Wednesday. "No one knows how many people were turned away," says journalism professor Suzanne McBride.

A day later, there are still questions swirling about whether Chicago’s school district improperly barred people from Wednesday's school board meeting.

Curtis Lawrence is a veteran reporter and teaches journalism at Columbia College. He and another professor, Suzanne McBride, had trouble getting into the meeting, as did their 11 graduate students.

"We were being told that everyone had to register online in advance," said Lawrence. "Our students from Columbia College eventually got in, we got press passes. But my concern as a journalist and just as a Chicago citizen is what about the school parent who doesn’t have a computer at home and decides they want to come and participate in the process about their kid’s education? They can’t."

Natalie Bauer of the Illinois Attorney General’s office said her office had received no complaints as of Wednesday night. But she said "per the Open Meetings Act, no one should be turned away for failure to register in advance if they want to attend a meeting—if there is space in the room."

People told WBEZ about separate instances in which they saw people turned away by school district employees Wednesday.

"I saw a couple of people who left, because they were saying they would not let them up," said Ronald Jackson, a member of the South Side NAACP.  "I told one guy--they can't do this." Jackson is a regular at board meetings and said he has never been turned away before. He said he did register in advance, but security guards told him he wasn't on the list. He then asked for a pass to the school district's Law Department. He said he explained the situation to a staffer there, then was kept waiting for a half hour. He said he was ready to go to jail. "I know they don't have the authority to bar me from an open meeting, whether they like me or not."

Jackson was eventually let into an overflow room with fewer than a dozen other people.

Several months ago, the school district shifted to an online registration system for people wishing to address the board, in part to avoid an excrutiating in-person sign-up process that often meant people had to stand in line beginning at 6 a.m., or even before. At the same time the board instituted the online speaker registration system, it asked people to register just to attend the board meeting.

Vince Casillas, comunity outreach manager at the Illinios Network of Charter Schools, brought parents with him to Wednesday's board meeting from various charter schools, but one parent was denied access and went home. Casillas says he didn't challenge the decision. "I mean, we were a little disappointed, but she'll be back next time, hopefully we'll have her properly registered and ready to go." 

The school district issued a statement Wednesday evening saying it is updating its guidelines to show that it requests—but does not require— advance registration. "Any member of the public who wishes to attend the Board meeting can do so without registering in advance given that there is adequate space in Board chambers and its overflow room," a district spokeswoman said in an email.

Attendance at Wednesday’s board meeting was lower than normal. About 250 demonstrators outside did not try to enter the meeting.

Suzanne McBride wonders how much damage was done. "No one knows how many people they turned away," she said.