With FOIA Requests, One Reporter’s Tenacity Pays Off

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

By any standard, Scott Reeder’s one-man, six-month investigation into the many ways Illinois’ “reformed” tenure system frustrates teacher accountability was an impressive piece of work.

Reeder, bureau chief for the Small Newspaper Group in the Illinois capital of Springfield, brought public attention to an untold and shocking story. He created two large databases, one tracking the number of tenured teachers fired in the past 18 years, and other showing the job-performance evaluations of every Illinois school district — something even the state board of education had never compiled.

Reeder made all his data available to the public at a Web site, www.thehiddencostsoftenure.com. The six-day series also created debate in the state: It was praised by the Chicago Tribune and condemned by teacher union leaders, one of whom called the series “unfortunate, misleading, and in some cases flat-out wrong.”

But the most impressive feat Reeder pulled off during the investigative piece came at the very beginning of his research: He filed more than 1,500 requests for documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), with all 876 school districts in Illinois — and achieved 100% compliance.

That cooperation is all the more remarkable considering that when The Associated Press and 14 daily papers conducted a FOIA audit in 1999 by asking for public documents from school districts and other government bodies, the reporters came away empty-handed two-thirds of the time.

“That’s a relative term, ‘cooperation,'” Reeder says with a laugh. In fact, when the reporter sent out his first mass mailing requesting the names of tenured teachers who had been placed on “remediation” (retraining, for unsatisfactory performance), only about half responded within the seven business days required by Illinois FOIA. A follow-up fax got about 50% of the original non-responders.

“Then I started calling every district,” Reeder says. At that point about 200 school districts were still ignoring him. With particularly stubborn districts, he began faxing the requests repeatedly, even on weekends.

“Essentially, my strategy was to hound the heck out of them, call them every day, and say, ?Hey, you’re not in compliance with the law,” Reeder says.

But in Illinois, Reeder not only had the law on his side — he had the nation’s first-ever “public access counsel” working out of state Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. (Indiana has a public access counsel that works as an independent agency.)

When he was down to about a dozen “very difficult” districts and was calling individual school board members to try to wrestle the information from them, Reeder contacted the pubic access counsel, Terry Mutchler.

“At the end of the day, Scott’s the one who did the legwork,” says Mutchler, a former AP reporter. “I was able to contact these bodies, and say, ?OK, everybody, first, these are public records and, secondly, the attorney general takes this really seriously, and you’d better comply.’ Lisa Madigan created this office in 2004 and has told everybody that FOIA [violations] are really on her radar screen.”

As Reeder’s investigative series — which ran in all of Kankakee, Ill.-based Small’s dailies — makes clear, the school districts had reason to be shy in releasing data on tenured teachers. Reeder uncovered the fact that of the 95,500 tenured educators in Illinois public schools, an average of just two are fired for poor performance each year. Like children of Lake Wobegon, all Illinois teachers are apparently above average: Just one of every tenured 930 teachers gets an unsatisfactory rating on his or her job-performance evaluations, he discovered.

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