Credit: Paul John Higgins

In his first months in office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been sending and resending the message that he wants his administration to be a model of transparency and openness. “During the campaign I promised to have the most open, accountable, and transparent government that the city of Chicago has ever seen,” Emanuel said at a June 8 press conference where he announced he was putting the names, positions, and salaries of all city employees online.

Apparently the city’s charter schools didn’t get the mayor’s message.

Charters are the fastest-growing part of the public school system, but it’s virtually impossible to determine how the charters spend the roughly $300 million in public funds they get each year. None of their budgets or payrolls are on the Internet for public view, and it’s not clear how—or if—the city or Chicago Public Schools tracks the way charters spend tax dollars.

And if by chance you ask the city or CPS to see charter budgets or payrolls, get ready to be led into a Freedom of Information Act fun-house hall of mirrors—a trip we experienced by mailing FOIA requests to 32 of the city’s largest charter operators.

Our inquiry began more than a year ago, when CPS began posting its payroll online. When asked why the database did not include charter school salaries, CPS officials explained that charters, though subsisting on public funds, are essentially private vendors and their employees do not work for the district. Anyone who wanted to examine charter budgets and payrolls would have to contact the state. But state employees told us they don’t keep such information and sent us back to CPS.

This spring, we sent CPS a Freedom of Information Act request asking for a copy of the payroll database for employees of all Chicago charter schools. We also asked for copies of all vendor payments to the charters so we could see exactly how much taxpayer money each one was receiving.

Two days later, CPS wrote back to say, “Unfortunately, Chicago Public Schools has no responsive information to your request.”

At least they were prompt in telling us they had nothing to tell us.

In late April we sent out FOIA requests to 32 of the charters themselves, asking for a copy of each school’s payroll and budget. The state law governing charters makes it clear they have to comply with the FOIA, but the response to our requests varied from charter to charter.

Let’s get the good news out of the way first.

Twelve schools essentially sent us the information we requested. Congratulations, guys—you haven’t violated the Freedom of Information Act.

One of the respondents said she felt it was her obligation. “I don’t have any problem with it because transparency helps everyone in the long run,” said Geri Harston, executive director of ACE Technical Charter High School. “If anything, I would want people to know what our challenges are.”

A special shout-out goes to Noble Street Charter School, one of the biggest charter networks, which provided a thorough, detailed, and easy-to-follow account of salaries and benefits at all ten of its campuses.

We called to ask for tips on how other charters could learn from their example. “This is a public school—there’s nothing we’re not willing to share,” said a spokeswoman who then asked that we not use her name.

The information these charters provided confirmed what we had long suspected: charter school employees make significantly less than their counterparts in the regular schools. Teachers make in the low 50s at the charters versus the high 60s at regular schools, while for principals it’s about $100,000 versus $140,000.

Now for the bad news in the transparency department: eight charters did not respond to our FOIA request at all. Maybe they have bad mail service. And Internet problems. And their phones have been acting funny.

Twelve other charters said they would comply, but actually didn’t. The info they sent us was either misleading or incomplete—they included employee job titles but not salaries or a list of salaries but not the titles. Or they skipped both names and titles and rounded salaries to the nearest $10,000.

The lawyer for Legacy Charter School responded with a hair-splitting legal argument that might have vexed Solomon. Damian Stutz of the firm SNR Denton said that according to a reading of the law by another lawyer—Errol Stone, who chairs Legacy’s board—the charter did not have to honor our request. “While the board of Legacy is subject to FOIA, Legacy itself is not,” Stutz wrote.

Still, he added that Legacy would do so anyway “as a courtesy.” Unfortunately, the information he sent was incomplete—a list of staffers without their salaries.

SNR is a major benefactor of the North Lawndale charter school—six members of the firm are on Legacy’s board. So, if nothing else, the kids at Legacy should be particularly well versed in FOIA law.

By the way, it’s always a little discouraging to get a letter from a lawyer when all you’ve done is ask how public schools spend public money.

Legacy also sent us a copy of one of its quarterly budget overviews, which charters are required to submit to CPS. It consisted of broad spending categories and little detail—reporting, for instance, that $2.8 million was allocated for personnel without specifying who got what.

Give credit to the people at Legacy—at least they said they would comply with our request, even though they didn’t do so fully.

In contrast, the United Neighborhood Organization’s budget transparency seems to be a work in progress.

In late April, we mailed a request for budget and payroll information to Alfred Quijano, a lawyer listed on UNO’s website as the FOIA officer for its charter schools. Curiously, UNO is one of the only charters employing someone with the title of FOIA officer.

But he wasn’t the person who responded to our FOIA request. Instead, we got a letter dated May 5 from—care to guess?—another lawyer. In this case, Homero Tristan.

If Tristan’s name sounds familiar, that’s probably because he was previously Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Human Resources commissioner. In 2009, Inspector General David Hoffman accused him of lying during an investigation into city hiring. Tristan denied Hoffman’s allegation but ended up stepping down.

For that matter, if UNO’s name sounds familiar, it’s because CEO Juan Rangel was a close backer of Mayor Daley, whose support was key in helping the organization build a network of nine publicly funded charter schools that receives about $27 million a year. Daley also named Rangel to the Park District board.

When Mayor Daley announced his retirement, Rangel was quick to pick the next winner, signing on with Emanuel, who named him cochair of his mayoral campaign. After his election, Emanuel tapped Rangel for the Public Building Commission, which, among other things, oversees construction of new schools. On June 23, Emanuel held a press event at one of UNO’s schools to praise it as an educational model.

Ironically, though, UNO has been one of the most egregious violators of Mayor Emanuel’s transparency pledge. In his response to our FOIA request, Tristan wrote that UNO needed extra time so he could determine if the charter was exempt from state FOIA requirements. Two weeks later he wrote us a follow-up letter denying our request on the grounds that UNO is not a “public body” and therefore is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

In other words, UNO gets to spend public dollars—the aforementioned $27 million a year—but the public doesn’t have a right to know how.

Actually, the state’s charter school law says just the opposite: “The governing body of a charter school shall be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”

And what does the state office that oversees freedom of information law think of this?

According to Natalie Bauer, communications director for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the law is clear: UNO has to respond.

Good luck getting them to do it. Over the years, researchers, parents, school activists, and other reporters throughout the state have fought, mostly without success, to try to get the charters to release things like the names of donors and financial records.

Last year Sarah Karp, a reporter for the investigative magazine Catalyst, sought budget and payroll information similar to what we did. Most charters didn’t give it to her either.

However, Bauer recommends that we all forge ahead. “Charter schools are subject to FOIA,” Bauer e-mailed us. “We encourage you to file with [the attorney general’s office] if you are still having difficulty getting schools to comply.”

Things got even more interesting last week, when we called Chris Mather, a spokeswoman for Emanuel, to ask whether the mayor intended to make UNO and the other charters obey his transparency requirements. Mather didn’t respond. But soon after, Tristan called to say that UNO had reconsidered and would send us the information we’d requested—two and a half months earlier.

Then, on Saturday, we got a call from Becky Carroll, a CPS spokeswoman, informing us that it had all been a big misunderstanding. The problem, she claimed, was that we hadn’t asked for the “right information” in our initial FOIA. She said that after the CPS press office had talked things over with the legal department, they “were able to determine what kind of information you guys should be asking for so you can get what you need.”

In other words, it was our fault that CPS doesn’t keep detailed payroll or budget records on publicly funded charter schools.

Carroll went on to tell us to call another CPS spokeswoman, Marielle Sainvilus, so Sainvilus could tell us how to write a new FOIA request. We could then submit in the hopes that they might send us whatever information they have—as opposed to just sending it right then.

On Monday we called and e-mailed Sainvilus. We’re still waiting to talk to her.

Additional reporting by Asher Klein