Chicago Public Schools failed to respond to public records requests in a 'timely manner,' lawsuit alleges

ILLINOIS — A Chicago-based investigative journalism organization and the city’s NBC affiliate have filed a lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools, alleging the district failed to comply with the state’s public records law when it failed to respond to information requests in a timely manner.

The Better Government Association, a non-profit government watchdog group, and the NBC affiliate WMAQ-TV, filed the suit on Sept. 5 in Cook County Circuit Court after the school district “willfully and intentionally violated FOIA by failing to respond to FOIA Requests.”

The Illinois public records law grants state agencies five business days to respond to records requests or to ask for an extension of an additional five business days.

On April 29, BGA requested copies of all settlement, severance and termination agreements the district approved since Jan. 1, 2013, according to the complaint. The district responded on May 6 by mistakenly claiming there was no timeframe on the request, causing it to be unduly burdensome.

After BGA replied that they had included a time frame in the initial request, CPS didn’t respond again, the complaint says.

In a Dec. 16, 2013, request, the NBC affiliate requested documents showing the cost to provide heat, electricity and water to the district’s buildings that were vacant since Sept. 1, 2013. The district didn’t respond until Jan. 3, 2014, when they asked for six additional days, according to the complaint. On Jan. 29, they asked NBC for another three days, and the NBC station didn’t receive the documents or hear anything from the district after the previous request for an extension.

“Unfortunately, it looks to us like Chicago Public Schools, despite getting many, many records requests, has only one employee devoted to the job, and it frankly seems to be a task that really requires more resources,” said Matthew Topic, BGA’s attorney. “No matter how hard one person tries to keep up, I think there is so much interest in what goes on” within the district that one employee isn’t able to handle the workload.

Although he did not comment on the lawsuit, CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement the organization recently implemented a new public records management software system and are “actively taking steps to improve response times and comply with the law.” The NBC affiliate’s attorney did not return telephone calls or emails requesting comment.

The American School & University’s 2013 ranking of enrolled students placed Chicago as the third-largest school district behind New York City and Los Angeles school districts. The district employs more than 41,000 people and has a budget of more than $5.5 billion.

The suit also notes the February 2013 binding opinion from the attorney general’s office against CPS for its failure to respond to a request in a timely and complete manner. Records from the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor show that the school district “failed to respond to more than 40 different FOIA requests in a timely manner” between January 2013 and March 2014.

Topic said he hopes the lawsuit will result in more timely responses from the school district to public information requests, as well as more resources allocated to the district’s process for responding to requests.

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.

This story was updated with a comment from Chicago Public Schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey.