By Tim McNicholas

CHICAGO (CBS) — A Taft High School teacher and several other Chicago Public Schools community members were denied access to public meetings this month because of Zoom limitations.

But Illinois state law says an interested member of the public should be allowed in. CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas pressed CPS on why that is not happening.

“I was put in the waiting room for a while,” said English teacher Allison Taylor.

Taylor planned on watching Taft’s Local School Council vote on whether to keep school resource officers this year. But instead of a public vote, she saw a message.

It read, “You are unable to rejoin this meeting because you were previously removed by the host.”

“So I tried several more times, just kept getting the same message,” Taylor said.

Taylor stays active in CPS. She coaches volleyball and leads a poetry club.

And while she is not an LSC member, she hoped to watch the vote, listen to the public input, and maybe even submit her own questions through the chat feature.

“I wasn’t able to even be part of that meeting and even able to hear the reasoning for their vote,” Taylor said.

The council chair apologized to Taylor the next day, saying she had unintentionally removed Taylor as she tried to get the last council member online.

That council member had logged on late due to technical difficulties.

“We were trying to figure out how to get her ahead of the line of the rest of the people who wanted to get on,” the email said.

That line included Miriam Bihmani, a community member and CPS mom who tried to log on and got a message saying the meeting was capped at 100 participants.

“The essence of civic participation is that people can participate in real time.” Bihmani said.

Two other community members told CBS 2 they got the same message, including one who said he saw it not just Tuesday, but also last week during a meeting focused on public input ahead of the Taft vote.

“If that means paying a few more bucks for a different version of Zoom, if that means switching over to another version like Google Meets, they need to figure this out,” Taylor said.

A recent amendment to the Illinois Open Meetings Act said if the meeting cannot happen in person, the public body must “allow any interested member of the public access” to hear the discussion, testimony, and votes, “such by offering a telephone number or a web-based link.”

The vote Tuesday was unanimous to keep resources at Taft, an issue several other school councils will soon vote on.

“I don’t think the vote would have changed,” Bihmani said. “O do think that having more people on the meeting would allow for more transparency and building trust.”

Bihmani showed us emails showing us she told CPS about the issue last week after hearing others couldn’t get onto the first meeting. But the problem was not fixed this week.

CPS tells us they recommended local school Councils use Google Meet, which can hold up to 250 people. We asked why that didn’t happen here, along with several other questions, and we haven’t heard back.

 

Tim McNicholas