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Community groups charge possible conflicts of interest in Chicago school turnarounds


“We have asked the Inspectors General for CPS and the US Department of Education to examine the last votes to turn over 3 schools to AUSL for turnaround to determine if there were any conflicts of interest among board members and AUSL; to analyze the relationship–if any– between political contributions to Mayor Emanuel from AUSL board members and the significant increase in the number of Chicago Public Schools turned over to AUSL on a no bid basis…”— Valerie Leonard of the Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education (CCUPPE)

In the wake of the latest Chicago school “turnarounds”, a broad alliance of community groups called Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education(CCUPPE) has come together to call for a moratorium on future school privatization actions and to reverse the decision to turn over Gresham, Dvorak and McNair to the private Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL). All three schools have predominately African American students living in low income neighborhoods.”

 May 27 press conference on school turnarounds
Cathaline Gray Carter (left) and Valerie Leonard (right)

Despite widespread community opposition all three of these schools were handed over to AUSL at an April 23, 2014 Board of Education meeting. At a May 27, 2014 press conference, Valerie Leonard of CCUPPE charged that since,”…  two of the five board members present and voting during the April meeting have apparent conflicts of interest stemming from relationships with AUSL, that the vote should be nullified.”

Cathaline Gray Carter, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) retiree and member of the Coalition of Rank and File Educators (CORE) discussed the current investigation by the Inspector General of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) into the CCUPPE allegations. It is the job of the Inspector General’s office to investigate “waste, fraud and financial mismanagement” within CPS. The Inspector General’s Office has 60 days to come up with a report. CCUPPE confirms that the investigation has begun.

The Inspector General’s Office of the Department of Education (DOE) will not comment on the complaint brought to them by CCUPPE, citing issues of investigative integrity. The agency said it will post results of any investigation on their website when the work is completed.

CCUPPE provided evidence about these apparent conflicts of interest. For example David Vitale, who voted for the turnarounds, was Chairman of the Board of AUSL before assuming his current role as president of the Chicago Board of Education.

Then there is Board member Carlos Azcoitia, an employee of National Louis University which trains AUSL personnel. Azcoita voted for the turnarounds then adroitly abstained when the issue of AUSL administering them came up, presumably to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Of course he knew damned well that AUSL is only vendor in the process.

In addition Valerie Leonard has noted that Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley is the former managing director of AUSL. AUSL officials and their spouses have made $63,000 in campaign contributions to Rahm Emanuel from 2010 to 2014 in what some community activists charge is just another Chicago-style “pay to play” scheme.

How a school turnaround impacts a community

In a school “turnaround”, or “reconstitution’ everyone is fired including the administration, faculty and support staff. People can apply to be hired back at the newly “reconstituted” school, but  AUSL prefers younger inexperienced teachers, many of whom leave the system within a year or two. This constant turnover is disruptive to the educational process.

The turnarounds have contributed to the sharp reduction of African American teachers and have been heavily criticized for destroying decades long relationships between schools and their surrounding communities.

CPS provides 5 years of extra support for AUSL and charter schools and only one year of “support” for welcoming schools after causing major upheavals through massive closures. Welcoming schools were supposed to receive students from the closed schools

AUSL has been able to raise test scores in some schools but its overall record is mediocre, which even the Chicago Tribune has noted. In 2012 the respected educational research group Designs for Change published a report which showed how schools  with a democratic culture of collaboration among the administration, the Local School Council and the unionized teachers far outperformed the topdown disruptive methods  of AUSL. This even though AUSL schools receive lavish financial assistance from CPS while the schools they replaced had to scramble for the most basic resources.

CCUPPE has specific  recommendations for  the Chicago Public Schools and City leadership 

CCUPPE spokesperson Dwayne Truss announced the following recommendations:

  1. Reverse the vote to reconstitute (turnaround) Gresham, Dvorak and McNair schools.
  2. Review the Board’s ethics policies to prevent a swinging door arrangement between CPS and CPS vendors.
  3. Abolish the reconstitution of schools as being expensive, disruptive and ineffective.
  4. Develop a transparent and fair process to allow addition school improvement vendors to bid, especially given the “inside track” appearance of AUSL Other bidders should include Strategic Learning Initiatives – which has a track record of success empowering current stakeholders. CPS needs to support school improvement that is led internally by the schools and communities in question, whether or not an external vendor assists them.
  5. Host public hearings by elected officials to investigate the CPS process for evaluating AUSL.
  6. Do a thoughtful fiscal and performance analysis of AUSL.
  7. Institute an immediate moratorium on all school actions, including closures and turnarounds until each school hears from all interested vendors and/or school submitted alternative plans. A Requests for Bids presentation session should be put in place for vendors and school committees to present their bids or alternative plans to a delegation made up of Board of Education representation, the Local School Council and school community members at large. The delegation would need to come to a consensus as to which option(s) to pursue for school improvement.
  8. Commit to community-teacher driven school improvement. Ultimately, we need an elected representative school board that is accountable to the citizens of Chicago.
May 27 press conference on school turnarounds
Vernita Farmer (left) and Dwayne Truss (right)

The resistance to school privatization continues

CPS is well aware that they have not crushed the resistance to school privatization by closing schools and favoring turnarounds or charters. Vernita Farmer, a community partner in Chicago’s 24th ward, spoke about the current situation at Gresham, one of the turnaround schools.

Farmer said that after a parent-community sit-in to protest the school action, the school’s locks were changed, Principal Diedrus Brown is no longer is allowed a set of keys and she must be out of the building by 6 PM. Farmer noted the increased security and the visible drop in student morale which she believes could impact their test results.

It is clear that the measures have nothing to do with actual security, but to prevent further community efforts to reverse the turnaround.

At a May 17th commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, speakers called school closures the new “separate and unequal” and announced the release of a new research report “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage”.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education
Jitu Brown announces release of the “Death by a Thousand Cuts”

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Chicago’s Bad Ass Moms (BAM) held the Neighborhood School Picnic to remember the 50 Chicago schools closed in 2013. The moms erected signs representing gravestones with the names of the schools and information about them, often with heartfelt quotes from students, parents and teachers.

Chicago neighborhood schools picnic: May 2014
A child stands in the symbolic graveyard of Chicago closed schools

With an election coming up, Rahm Emanuel’s poll numbers are at an all-time low and his school closings and turnarounds are part of the reason. Several aldermanic candidates are making his school actions a major issue.

The recommendations by CCUPPE will require a major change in the city’s corporate dominated political economy, yet education justice activists seem undaunted by the immensity of the task before them.

“The current Board of Education is appointed by the Mayor and operates under the cloak of darkness with impunity. They have abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities of loyalty and care. They serve as rubber stamps to privatize local schools to the benefit of organizations that are aligned with the Mayor, even if it means paying a premium for services whose effectiveness has been called into question. We need to end this culture…”—Valerie Leonard of CCUPPE

Bob “BobboSphere” Simpson is a retired high school teacher and a member of Action Now.

Sources consulted

Notes from the May 27 Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education CCUPPE press conference. A press kit is available here.

Notes from the Neighborhood Schools Picnic: Photos available here and here

AUSL turnarounds called ineffective, expensive by Curtis Black

Education Groups Demand Investigation Into Chicago Board Of Ed’s Ties To AUSL by Ellyn Fortino

Chicago’s Democratically-Led  Elementary Schools Far Out-Perform 

Chicago’s “Turnaround Schools” by Designs for Change

School reform organization gets average grades by Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah

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