Chicago education activists and grassroots organizations have taken their fight against recently-approved public school turnarounds to the inspectors general of the school district and the U.S. Department of Education.
On April 30, the Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education coalition filed complaints with the two inspector general offices, requesting an investigation into possible conflicts of interest surrounding the Chicago Board of Education's decision last month to hand three academically struggling schools over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a controversial school turnaround contractor.
In its complaints, the coalition specifically cites Board of Education President David Vitale and board member Carlos Azcoitia as having potential conflicts due to their ties to AUSL. The education coalition, which believes the three recent school turnarounds are invalid due to the alleged conflicts, also notes that Tim Cawley, CPS' Chief Administrative Officer, is the former managing director of AUSL and "is in a position to approve CPS contracts, including the AUSL contracts."
"There seems to be a swinging door relationship between CPS and AUSL," said Valerie Leonard with Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education, which includes groups such as Blocks Together, the Lawndale Alliance, Teachers for Social Justice and other members.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Saturday that the office of CPS Inspector General James Sullivan is looking into the concerns raised by the education coalition.
“We’ve received the complaints, and we will follow up to determine if there are any ethical violations,” Sullivan told the newspaper. He declined to provide specifics about the investigation.
In an email to Progress Illinois, a representative from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General said, "We do not discuss whether we receive a complaint/allegation, nor do we confirm or deny investigative activity."
"These longstanding policies are in place to protect and maintain the integrity of any possible OIG work," wrote Catherine Grant, congressional and public affairs liaison for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General. "We do discuss our completed work, which is available on our website."
At the request of CPS officials, the mayor's hand-picked Chicago Board of Education voted at its meeting last month to "turnaround" three underperforming elementary schools, including Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale, Ronald E. McNair in Austin and Walter Q. Gresham in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. All staff members at Dvorak, Gresham and McNair are slated to be fired, and AUSL will hire on the principal, faculty and staff at the three schools. Community members, parents and others vehemently opposed the school turnarounds.
Five of the seven board members were present at the April 23 meeting, during which the board voted 5-0 to reconstitute Gresham. The votes to reorganize Dvorak and McNair were both 4-1, with the lone objection coming from board member Andrea Zopp.
Azcoitia, who Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed to the board in November 2012, abstained from separate votes to enter into contracts with AUSL for turnaround services at the schools. Azcoitia recused himself because he is a "Distinguished Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership" at National Louis University, the college that serves as AUSL's "exclusive teacher preparation partner," according to its website.
Azcoitia pulled himself out of the vote "because he doesn't want to appear to have a conflict of interest," Leonard said Monday morning outside of the U.S. Department of Education's Region V office in downtown Chicago. "In our minds, if you feel that you have a conflict of interest for voting for a contract, then you should also feel that you have a conflict of interest for voting for the turnaround."
Leonard argues that the district did not provide the board last month with other turnaround contract options other than AUSL.
"When we look at the recommendation by [CPS CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett ... [and] look at the way the meeting went the day that they voted, the only alternative was an AUSL turnaround," she said.
Azcoitia recently told the Chicago Sun-Times that he voted in favor of overhauling the three schools because, “Based on the data, the schools qualify for reconstitution."
“I don’t think my first vote implies directly that’s the only alternative, when we have OS4,” he added. OS4 is short for CPS' Office of Strategic School Support Services, which helps high-need schools boost their overall performance.
Azcoitia also reportedly voted in May of 2013 to turnaround five elementary schools and have AUSL manage them.
In the complaints, concerns were also raised about Vitale, who was appointed as board of education president in May of 2011 and previously served as AUSL's board chairman from 2009 to 2011. Vitale did not recuse himself from the votes in April to reconstitute the three schools or enter into contract agreements with AUSL. He has also voted in the past for AUSL school turnarounds.
"Since he joined the board of education in 2011, President Vitale has consistently voted to approve school turnarounds using AUSL as the contractor," Leonard stressed. "He has also voted for the underlying management contracts, valued at $300,000 for each school under AUSL management. To date, he has voted for 15 AUSL turnarounds and management contracts, valued at over $4.5 million. This does not include additional funding of $420 per pupil, approvals for capital improvements associated with turnarounds, or teacher training costs."
"Mayor Emanuel estimated that it would cost $10 million to train enough teachers to staff eight AUSL schools when he was running for mayor," she added. "Capital costs associated with the schools turned around since Mr. Vitale joined the board are estimated to exceed $30 million."
In a statement to Progress Illinois, CPS spokesman Joel Hood said: "All Chicago Board of Education members present at the April 23 public hearing acted in accordance with the Board's Code of Ethics policy. CPS and the Board are committed to ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality education and strong school leadership as demonstrated by AUSL's proven track record of success."
An AUSL representative recently told Progress Illinois that its turnaround schools have outperformed the district in terms of ISAT gains every year for the last six years. Also, AUSL turnaround schools outperformed the district last year when it comes to the percent of students meeting or exceeding the national average growth on the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) by 6 percent in reading and 8 percent in math, she said.
If the CPS inspector general finds one or both board of education members to be in conflict, he would not have the power to overturn the turnaround votes, Hood said. The inspector general would have to refer the case to the Attorney General's office, which would have such authority, he added. The district, however, would also have the option to bring up the turnarounds for another vote at a meeting when more or all board members are present.
If the education department's inspector general investigates and finds a conflict, the office could possibly make recommendations to CPS for remedies, Leonard said. In such a situation, the education department might possibly withhold federal education funds if CPS does not take corrective action, Leonard said.
Here's more from Leonard about the complaints:
Among other concerns, the group wants the inspectors general to look into the costs associated with the AUSL turnaround model compared with other school improvement alternatives as well as CPS' "lack of a competitive bidding process in selecting vendors to improve schools."
"What troubles me is the fact that it's just not an effective use of taxpayer's money, because when you look at schools with similar demographics as the schools that were just recently voted to be reconstituted, Gresham, McNair and Dvorak, and when you look at similar [AUSL] schools ... AUSL schools have zero growth," said coalition member Dwayne Truss.
The activists also say it is concerning to learn that some AUSL board members or their relatives have made political campaign contributions to Emanuel.
Between July of 2010 and March of 2014, the coalition found that AUSL board members, their spouses or related businesses apparently contributed a collective $63,700 to Emanuel's campaign, according to the group's examination of Illinois State Board of Elections records.
"A few years ago, CPS would turn over one, maybe two or three, schools a year to AUSL for turnarounds," Truss said. "Under Mayor Emanuel, CPS has voted to turn over anywhere from three to seven schools a year to AUSL for turnaround. We look at how AUSL's business with CPS has increased over the mayor's term in office. Is this mere coincidence or 'pay-to-play?' We don't know, but we'd like the inspectors general to look into this."
In addition to filing complaints with the offices of the inspectors general, the coalition is urging Chicago aldermen and state lawmakers to hold hearings concerning the relationship between AUSL, the Chicago Board of Education and Emanuel.
"Today, we as taxpayers can no longer accept the business as usual," said Carolina Gaete, co-director of Blocks Together. "There's too much at stake. Our children's educational future is being jeopardized because the people trusted to make decisions for our schools put profit and political gains before our children and community's needs. We hope the inspector general will correct this very undemocratic process in which CPS is conducting business."