Aspira directors oust Jose Rodriguez while controversies over the expansion of the charter school grow

The Aspira Board of Directors ousted its long-term director Jose Rodriguez, a political powerhouse and controversial charter school operator. According to Larry Ligas, a concerned community activist opposed to Aspira building a new $20 million charter school in Logan Square, the Aspira board voted to fire Rodriguez at a Monday, March 26th board meeting.

Aspira Director Jose Rodriguez (above right) at the November 2005 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Rodriguez has tight political connections, including a close relationship to State Senator Iris Martinez, with whom he served as head of finances for her re-election campaigns. Martinez has not responded to a call from Substance seeking her reaction.

In the murky world of privatizing Chicago public schools via charters, Rodriguez was a formidable player. Rodriguez oversaw a growing mini-empire of charter schools despite being bombarded by lawsuits and corruption allegations.

Aspira was awarded $18 million by the state of Illinois a few years ago, after UNO Charter schools received almost $100 million, to build more charter schools, despite the fact that Aspira schools are not making the necessary annual yearly progress according to federal guideline requirements, plus the state is allegedly bankrupt and has to massively cut public school funding.

Aspira’s problems began in 2006 when it came out of nowhere to take control of a new Haugan Middle School built to relieve the overcrowded elementary school in Albany Park. Despite the fact that the community opposed housing a charter school, Rodriguez and Aspira were able to convince the area’s elected officials to support the charter school.

A Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan praised the city's expanding charter schools at the November 2006 meeting of the Board of Education (above). During Duncan's eight year term as CEO of CPS, the Board ignored numerous complaints about charter schools corruption and even financial mismanagement, while expanding the city's charter schools and undermining the real public schools to the greatest extent in the nation. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.lmost immediately after the school opened, a group of parents started a blog highlighting the numerous problems, from security concerns, high teacher and administrative turnover to harassment and intimidation.

Several whistle blowers then appeared, with whom Rodriguez made undisclosed settlements after they were fired, for allegedly exposing corruption.

Meg Sullivan, who blew the whistle on corruptions at the Aspira charter schools, spoke with reporters following her presentation about Aspira's corruption at the December 2008 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education (above). Sullivan's complaints were covered up by CPS officials for several years. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The biggest was former teacher Meg Sullivan, who blew the whistle on the charter school’s decision to strip search a few female middle school students.

According to lawyer Jim Fennerty who represented the students in a federal lawsuit against Aspira, the case was just recently settled out of court. Sullivan, who was fired after her allegations were made public, has also settled her case with Aspira.

The strip search case had reverberations that went all the up to the White House, where education secretary Arne Duncan was forced to comment on why he would award more contracts to the charter school operator.

A Chicago public schools spokesman had to admit that the unregulated charter schools made it difficult to police wayward charters.

But despite this, the Chicago City Council’s zoning committee just recently passed a new zoning ordinance in favor of Aspira building a new charter school.

With the support of corporate mayor Rahm Emanuel — who is heavily pushing the privatization of public schools via turnarounds and charter schools — it would appear Aspira should have no problem adding to its arsenal of charter schools.

But the question to ask is, why would the Aspira board fire Rodriguez, who was earning almost $190,000 a year as the CEO, at a time when they are once again battling the community over plans to expand.

A changing of the guard could be the reason behind the sudden ouster of Rodriguez, whom sources say was once referred to as the ‘godfather’ in the city hall circles of mayor Richard Daley.

UNO charter mogul Juan Rangel hitched his wagon to the election of Rahm Emanuel, a necessary political move to expand his charter empire on the southwest side and fight unions.

Rodriguez, on the other hand, backed Miguel Del Valle, a reformer who had supported Aspira in the past. The Reader’s Ben Joravsky once quoted the Puerto Rican politician as saying we need our charter schools, referring to Aspira which originated as an after school charity run by individuals of Puerto Rican descent.

Aspira teachers also had formed a union, one of the few charter schools in the city with unionized teachers.

According to Ligas, a Logan Square community activist, a number of teachers and students spoke out against the charter school at the Board meeting at 1711 N. California, the site of Aspira’s Mirta Ramirez Charter High School.

Even the Aspira founder herself, Mirta Ramirez, spoke out against Rodriguez, Ligas told Substance.

Ligas said the community is against constructing the $22.5 million new high school for 600 students, because it is a dangerous site plan, will make parking even worse for area residents and businesses and it is a failing charter operator.

“CPS is turning a blind eye to years of underperforming Aspira schools and irresponsible management,” Ligas said. “The site at Milwaukee and Monticello is a small, irregular parcel, combining multiple small lots and joined by public alleys which Aspira plans to make a drive aisle – with the front entrance and drop off for the school building on dangerous Milwaukee Avenue, with no fence or respectful setback from 17,000 vehicles per day on Milwaukee Avenue. Residents and businesses on Milwaukee, Monticello and Central Park will be directly negatively impacted by the traffic and congestion – particularly on narrow Monticello. Why didn’t Aspira purchase a larger, safer site?”

According to Ligas, Aspira was granted a special use permit by the city to construct the school. And once again, it has lined up important public officials like Sen. Martinez to support the charter expansion against the wishes of the community.

Perhaps the Aspira board made a deal with Emanuel; if Rodriguez goes, this corrupt charter operator can continue to operate in the city of Rahm.

Stay tuned ….