Wait, so, how many students have gone missing from CPS, Barbara Byrd-Bennett?
  • Al Podgorski
  • Wait, so, how many students have gone missing from CPS, Barbara Byrd-Bennett?

Over the last few days, I’ve been watching Mayor Rahm work his magic in the mayoral debates, where he answers questions however he wants, regardless of what he’s been asked.

And it occurred to me that it would be great if the mayor had a transformation like in Liar Liar, the movie where Jim Carrey plays a sleazy lawyer who suddenly loses his ability to lie.

For instance . . .

When Phil Ponce, the moderator in the WTTW debate, asked why the dead-end street on which Alderman Ed Burke lives got plowed five times in the hours after last week’s snow storm, the mayor would have said…

“I cut a deal with Alderman Burke in which I let him keep his police bodyguars and his finance committee chairmanship and pretty much anything else he wants, including, apparently, around-the-clock snow removal service. And in exchange, he gives me his unwavering support for anything I want, even my dumb ideas.”

Instead the mayor answered by bragging about the city’s Plow Tracker program, which, of course, had nothing to do with Ponce’s question.

Since Mayor Rahm hasn’t undergone such a transformation, we’re left with a fundamental question—does he or his administration ever tell the truth?

That’s difficult to answer because, in many cases, only the mayor has access to the information that enables the rest of us to determine what the truth may be.

And that brings me to Sarah Karp’s recently published story in Catalyst about the students CPS lost track of when it closed all those schools in 2013.

In some ways, the most compelling part of Karp’s story is the resistance she had to overcome before CPS turned over basic information.

This begins in March 2014 when teacher union president Karen Lewis got up at a school board meeting and said that at least 800 students were unaccounted for from the 50 or so schools Mayor Emanuel closed in 2013.

After the meeting, Karp approached a CPS press aide, and asked if Lewis’s numbers were accurate.

He told her that CPS was working with the state to figure out where the unaccounted for students were going to school and he’d get back to her once they figured it all out.

After that, Karp repeatedly checked in with the press aide about those unaccounted for kids.

And he kept telling Karp they were still working on it.

And then on August 1, out of nowhere, a letter written by Barbara Byrd-Bennett appeared in the Sun-Times.

In that letter Byrd-Bennett wrote, “Recent data verified by the Illinois State Board of Education clearly show that more than 99 percent of the students some critics claimed CPS had ‘lost’ in the closure process were enrolled in other schools in the state, transferred out of state or enrolled in a private school.”

Moreover, “of the 847 students identified by our critics as ‘lost,’ only seven could not be accounted for by the state. Seven. That is seven students from a total of 11,729 of our children affected by the school closures.”

She went on to write that: “One ‘lost’ child is one too many. But the horror stories about hundreds of children ‘lost’ to the streets during this transition were simply misguided efforts to distract us from our mission to give every child in every neighborhood the great education they deserve.”

So take that, Karen Lewis!

Upon reading Byrd-Bennett’s letter, Karp called the press aide and said: “How come you didn’t give me that info, you two-timing mother—”

Well she didn’t really say that. But maybe she felt it—just a little.

She asked for the supporting info that would substantiate Byrd-Bennett’s contention that only seven students were unaccounted for.

And he said he couldn’t just give her the info. She’d have to write a letter requesting it under the Freedom of Information Act.

That’s a state law designed to give the public access to information, though it’s largely used by Mayor Rahm to deny the public access to information. As I may have written a few times before.

On August 8, Karp sent her FOIA request to CPS. And not long thereafter CPS sent her a letter saying they’d received her request.

But they never turned over the information.

After several weeks of this sort of runaround, Karp brought in a lawyer to write a vaguely threatening lawyer-like letter.

CPS responded and, in a major display of passive-aggressiveness, said they were unaware that Karp had ever sent in an official FOIA request.

So Karp re-sent her original FOIA request as well as the previous CPS response acknowledging that they’d received that request.

Meanwhile, CPS never veered from Byrd-Bennett’s contention that only seven kids were unaccounted for.

Finally, on January 16 at 5:45 in the afternoon, CPS emailed Karp the information she’d been requesting for over five months.

And, lo and behold, after digging through it all, Karp discovered that at least 434 students were unaccounted for. Not seven.

So it turns out that the state had never verified the number, like Byrd Bennett contested. And that the critics were right—it was “hundreds of kids lost to the streets.” And if Karp hadn’t hounded CPS with her calls and FOIA requests, they probably wouldn’t have tried to account for those missing kids. If they ever really tried at all.

We still don’t know how Byrd-Bennett came up with the number seven—perhaps it came to her in a dream. Though that probably won’t prevent Mayor Rahm from citing it in an upcoming debate.