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Reporters Dish on Covering Chicago Public Schools

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Reporters like to gather after work, grab a beer, and then gossip and gripe, sometimes about their bosses, sometimes about the organizations and people they cover.

In Chicago, they put some of these sessions on the Web with an event called First Tuesdays. It is held at the Hideout Tavern in that city and hosted by Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky, both writers with the Chicago Reader, an alternative newspaper.

Last week, the topic for First Tuesdays was covering Chicago schools in the era of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The city's mayor has had significant control of the 400,000-student system since the 1990's and Emanuel has been an active player, including the controversial decision last year to shut down 49 elementary schools.

The guest reporters were Linda Lutton, who covers education for public radio station WBEZ in Chicago; Lauren FitzPatrick, who covers the city school system for the Chicago Sun-Times; and Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, an independent news publication covering education in the city.

To fully appreciate the dishy and irreverent tone of the 80-minute session, you have to watch to whole thing. But here are a few highlights:

Lutton, who is taking a yearlong break from her job to be a Spencer Fellow in education reporting at Columbia University's journalism school in New York City, said media relations officials with the Chicago Public Schools have made it more difficult to get even even basic information or access to schools.

"Today to get in a school for a good news story or a bad news story, it's almost impossible" to set up through official channels, Lutton said. 

Karp said the central office will put out some information in aggregate form, but reporters have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get details. "Covering CPS is an exercise in creativity," she said.

FitzPatrick agreed, citing a recent example of trying to discover why in a recent budget some schools were slated for the installation of air conditioning and others were not. She had a FOIA request pending on that. 

FitzPatrick told of returning from maternity leave this past spring to a beat whose intricacies she was still trying to master after being tossed into it two years ago amid the closings controversy. While perusing a routine Board of Education agenda during a meeting, a reference to a Staples purchase caught her eye. "I looked at that and said, wait, they're buying new furniture for the central office?" she said.

That led to a March 25 Sun-Times story with this lead: "In the wake of massive school closings and budget woes, Chicago Public Schools is seeking to double its furniture budget to $9.5 million, chalking up $5 million of that to an upcoming move of its central headquarters."

FitzPartrick quoted the school system's chief spokesman as explaining that the old central office furniture wouldn't fit at a new "streamlined" headquarters space and that it would be too costly to disassemble, move, and reassemble the old furniture.

Besides discussing the challenges of the beat, the reporters also offered some limited speculation about the future. They didn't seem to have any special insight on whether Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who has clashed with Emanuel, would challenge him in next year's Chicago mayoral race.

And they suggested that Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is the second schools chief under Emanuel, would be in her post no longer than municipal election time next February, and perhaps would leave sooner. 

The CPS communications office didn't respond to a request for comment on the reporters' criticisms or other things said during the First Tuesdays session.

[Hat Tip to Jim Romenesko for noting the Web session of First Tuesdays.]

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