I want to tell you a story about attending a Chicago Board of Education meeting.
It starts two days before the meeting itself, which is always held on a Wednesday. Sixty speakers and 100 observers are allowed to sign up from Monday at 10:30 a.m. until Tuesday at 5 p.m., or until the spots are filled.
Those spots are always gone in a flash. Two weeks ago, for instance, all 60 speaker spots were gone by 10:31. All 100 observer spots were gone by 10:34. So in order to participate, you have to be in front of a computer at 10:30 a.m. sharp on Monday and you must be quick with typing.
That’s the first step in a process that, at every turn, discourages disadvantaged people from being heard.
Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has promised to bring more transparency to school board meetings, and she has appointed seven new members who have reiterated her pledge. But while the constitution of the group has changed, some procedural issues still need to be addressed.
For example, if you manage to get registered, you receive an email from CPS saying that check-in for the 10:30 a.m. meeting is open at 9:30 a.m. and the overflow room opens at 10. If you aren’t there at the start of the meeting, your observer spot is released to someone registering in person. Going into the building, you have to go through security, where any liquid — water bottles, coffee — is confiscated.
The group that I am a part of, parents of National Teachers Academy or #WeAreNTA, organizes volunteers to register other parents and community members who are busy on Monday mornings or who are not computer savvy. At the last meeting, two speakers and seven registered observers from #WeAreNTA, including me, made it through the registration process and into the building. We took seats in the overflow room at 10:15 a.m.
Then, the waiting began. Usually, meetings start with recognition of achievements of students and teachers. The last meeting started with remarks from new board members, which took 20 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of honoring excellence, then the CEO’s report and presentations by district officials.
Finally, public participation started. But before the registered speakers — who went through the aforementioned procedure, and were lucky enough to get a spot to speak for two minutes — public officials and notable figures go first, without a time limit.
Six people spoke before the registered speakers, which took more than 30 minutes. (I appreciated that Miguel Del Valle, the new board president, recognized the 60 registered speakers patiently waiting for their turns.)
When finally, really, at last, public participation segment started, it was past 2 p.m. We had been sitting for four hours, without water or coffee, without lunch, and without knowing when we would be called. When it finally became #WeAreNTA’s turn, at almost 3 p.m., only five of us were there. Others, including myself, had to leave to pick up kids or for a work commitment. For one of our speakers, who is diabetic and didn’t realize she would be without food for so long, that wait was particularly stressful, especially because she knew she couldn’t ask someone else present to speak in her place if she needed to leave.
Let me reiterate. We had 13 people who originally wanted to participate. Nine were able to register. However, when it became #WeAreNTA’s turn to speak, only five people could be there. Because of the registration procedure and the meeting format, the board missed an opportunity to meet with eight parents and students who were willing to travel downtown on a weekday morning.
When we look through an equity lens at what it actually takes for one person to have their voice heard in that board room, it is obvious that the process is not working.
I have high hopes that these board members, who say they are thinking about equity, will fix this. Sitting there for five hours just for two minutes of speech is nothing but a burden. And you need to have a flexible work schedule, not have limiting medical conditions, and be able to afford hours of childcare in order to be able to stay that long.
The current system is not friendly to anyone, but it excludes people with fewer resources specifically. I can still manage to attend, but others will not be heard. As someone who has seen the power of parent activism up close — parents and supporters of NTA sued to stop a plan to close the majority-black school in favor of a new high school, and the district changed course — this strikes me as an incredible loss.
Some things are already moving in the right direction. The board says that new rules and policies will be posted a month in advance for public comments and that it will hold more meetings outside of 42 W. Madison.
At the last meeting, as always, I brought my selfie stick and portable charger to livestream the meeting for parents and supporters who could not attend. It was a refreshing surprise to hear that the board meetings will be officially livestreamed starting in July. I hope the livestreaming rule will be applied to all public meetings held by CPS, including town halls.
I’m also glad that the board says it will discuss its agenda in public, instead of in closed rooms. That is going to make meetings longer, and more like the one I attended. That’s OK, and a healthy sign that the board isn’t just rubber-stamping everything in front of it.
But that makes changes to the public participation portion of the meeting, including the registration process and meeting agenda, especially important. What if the meetings started with public participation? Perhaps the public participation segment even needs to happen independently, on a separate day.
I’m not sure what the right answer is. But it’s important to get it right if Chicago wants more equitable participation in its decision-making process.
Aiko Kojima Hibino is a parent at National Teachers Academy and a new board member of Illinois Raise Your Hand for Public Education, a nonprofit parent organization.