Members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and other allied organizations increased their calls on Tuesday morning for an elected school board and the resignation of Chicago Board of Education member Deborah Quazzo, who has come under scrutiny over her business interests following a recent Chicago Sun-Times investigation.
Chanting, "Quit, Quazzo. Quit," about 30 CTU members, parents and organizers with Action Now, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, More than a Score and other groups picketed outside the offices of GSV Advisors, an investment firm of which Quazzo is the founder and managing partner. The company's offices are located in the John Hancock Center, 875 N. Michigan Ave.
According to an investigative report published late last month by the Chicago Sun-Times, five educational tech companies in which Quazzo has invested have allegedly tripled their business with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) since Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to the board in June of 2013. The firms have reportedly been paid nearly $3 million by CPS since Quazzo's board appointment. The CPS inspector general launched a probe into the matter in light of the newspaper's findings.
The CTU maintains that "Quazzo's seat on the board represents an unethical conflict of interest" and demonstrates the need for an elected, representative school board.
"We're here to draw the public's attention to the fact that Deborah Quazzo is a walking, talking conflict of interest," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said at the rally. "She is a person who has been personally profiting from the institution which she is supposed to exercise direct oversight of. Deborah Quazzo is a wolf in sheep's clothing. She is a person who is supposed to be safeguarding the public interest in the public schools.
"She's supposed to hold that institution, which has existed for over 100 years in Chicago, in the highest trust, and instead, she is trying to do right by the people who own trusts and trust funds and investment funds, and that is not who we need in a school board representing our interests," he continued. "She is not accountable to the public. She is a walking, talking advertisement for why we need an elected school board."
Here's more from Sharkey, CPS parent Julie Kosowski and scenes of the protest:
Neither the mayor's office nor CPS responded to requests for comment for this story by deadline.
Emanuel, who is running for a second term, commented earlier this month on the controversy, saying Quazzo should remain in her post.
"Deb has the public spiritedness and the commitment on education as well as public policy, but on education specifically, to serve and bring that energy and that passion to her role on the CPS board," the mayor said on January 5.
"Deb says she'll answer any questions, the [Inspector General's] going to look into it. I'm pleased that she's volunteered her time to serve and she's going to continue to do it," Emanuel added.
Quazzo, who could not be reached for comment at GSV Advisors, has pointed out that she's recused herself on Board of Education votes related to the companies in question. In explaining why she has not stopped investing in the firms, Quazzo noted that, "It's my belief I need to invest in companies and philanthropic organizations who improve outcomes for children."
Following the newspaper's investigative report, mayoral challengers Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia have also called on Quazzo to step down. Additionally, Action Now started an online petition calling for Quazzo's resignation that has garnered more than 1,300 signatures.
At the protest, Action Now member Anthony Edwards noted that as a Local School Council member at the O'Keefe School of Excellence, a CPS school managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), he cannot be connected to firms doing business with the school.
"This [standard] should be held at the top, instead of the bottom," Edwards said. "I'm doing this out of charity for the love of the kids ... We can't tell if she's doing this for the love of the kids, but we definitely know she's doing it for the dollars."
Sharkey said education activists plan to keep the pressure on Quazzo to step down from the board.
"If she's going to bring her workplace where she makes millions to our public schools, then we're going to bring our quest for just public schools to her workplace," he said.
Organizers said they hope the results of a non-binding voter question about an elected Chicago school board, which is set to appear on the February 24 municipal ballot in 37 city wards, will prompt change in the city.
"We do believe our voices will be heard," Edwards said of the ward-level, elected school board advisory referendums.
The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature must ultimately change the rules.
The CTU and other elected school board supporters launched their ward-by-ward referendum petition drive in October after an advisory voter question on the matter was crowded off the citywide ballot for a third time. Proponents of an elected school board argue that the question has been kept off the citywide ballot because it would garner strong support, showing that Chicagoans largely disapprove of Emanuel's education policies.
In November of 2012, the question did appear on the ballot in 327 Chicago precincts, with nearly 87 percent of voters favoring an elected, rather than appointed, school board.
In announcing his second-term education agenda earlier this month, Emanuel discussed the idea of an elected school board, which he opposes.
"I don't think we should put politics back into our schools," the mayor stated. "That's what got them in trouble in the first place."
Ronda Locke, an aldermanic candidate vying to unseat Ald. Joe Moreno in Chicago's 1st Ward, stood in solidarity with the education activists pushing for an elected school board and Quazzo's resignation.
"What we have right now is not working," she said of the mayoral-appointed board. "It's primarily taking care of friends, and they're not putting the best interest of the children first."