MEDIA WATCH: Crain's Chicago Business gets UNO story straight -- and sees the story ignored in both daily newspapers on the day of the January Board of Education meeting
For five years, since he announced at Marquette Elementary School that UNO would be building charter schools to "relieve overcrowding," UNO's Juan Rangal has profited, both personally and in his organization, from an unusual deal that gives UNO public money to build new charter schools. While the public clamors for new schools to relieve overcrowding in those parts of town where overcrowding is a big problem (northwest, southwest, and some along the lake), UNO's project has only been implemented only once outside the UNO patch (which is the "Southwest Side").
"Earmarks" of the kind described the day of the Board of Education's January meeting (January 23) are not only directed to UNO, although most reporters have ignored the stories we've reported for years here. Five years ago, the same kind of deal was wrangled by Aspira. That was before its numerous scandals crippled Aspira as a credible operation, even with the clout it once had.
As parts of the northwest side became more and more overcrowded, the Board, under Arne Duncan, built a new building to relieve overcrowding at Haugan Elementary School -- and then gave the new building away to Aspira rather than making it a real public school.
Aspira got a brand new building, built with public money to "relieve overcrowding," and the "Aspira Haugan Middle School" (plagued with mismanagement and scandal since) was born. But the big pickings from the public treasury for building charter school buildings, as the story below points out, has gone to UNO.
As January ends, Substance readers may ask, after noting that there is still no story such as the latest charter school scandal with UNO following in the two daily newspapers of Chicago, how the city sets its priorities. We will report when the Sun-Times and Tribune has discovered this story. Somehow...
CRAIN'S CHICAGO BUSINESS: Springfield magic: Money for schools Ã¢â‚¬â€ some schools. January 23, 2013, Crain's. Greg Hinz's blog...
Remember "new math?" How about funky math, Springfield style?
Here's a story only a Chicagoan could really appreciate, a story about how one chain of privately operated charter schools recently almost got a whopping $35 million grant Ã¢â‚¬â€ as much as Chicago Public Schools were to get for the entire city Ã¢â‚¬â€ thanks to a well-placed pol or two.
I love Springfield.
I first heard about the story from Parents United for Responsible Education, a hard-scrabble civic group that ordinarily targets Chicago Public Schools management and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In this case, though, the group was squawking about money destined for schools operated by the United Neighborhood Organization.
The group, generally known as UNO, is one of the better-connected groups in town. With deep roots in Chicago's growing Latino community, it was tight as could be with former Mayor Richard M. Daley and has maintained warm ties with his successor.
Anyhow, UNO a few years ago got what amounted to a $98 million earmark out of Springfield to build new schools for its operation. And then PURE found out that UNO was pushing to get another $35 million in a measure that was pending in the General Assembly's veto session early in January.
PURE was right. See a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 24 introduced on Jan. 2 by North Side state Sen. Heather Steans.
And then go all the way to page 52 of the 89-page amendment, to Section 110, and you'll see a proposed appropriation "of $35,200,000, or so much thereof . . . to the United Neighborhood Organization" for capital work on one or more green-certified "facilities."
That's a lot of money anytime Ã¢â‚¬â€ particularly a time when Chicago Public Schools is warning of a $1 billion deficit, and in a week when Gov. Pat Quinn said the state might soon have to cut state school aid by $400 million. So I called Ms. Steans, whose district is entirely in the city, to ask what was up.
Ms. Steans says she found out about the amendment she was introducing "that day, from staff." In other words, she was handling it at the request of somebody upstairs.
The bill didn't make it out of a Senate committee during the lame-duck session. But only because downstate and suburban committee members started asking about all of this dough suddenly directed at UNO. Ms. Steans noted that, somewhere in that big, long amendment, there also was $35 million for capital work on Chicago Public Schools.
So I called UNO chief Juan Rangel.
To his credit, he was totally upfront in confirming that he did ask for the earmark Ã¢â‚¬â€ and that he has no regrets.
"We're not going to apologize for the work we do to help our community," he said. The fact is that Latino neighborhoods are short of classroom space and need to build more, something that UNO is doing, he said.
But what about Latino kids in public schools? Such as at Pilsen Academy, where Local School Council President Rosemary Sierra tells me they can't even get money to replace decades-old temporary classrooms or to build a playground, while UNO is building a $27 million Soccer Academy High School?
UNO "builds schools faster" than the city or Board of Education can, Mr. Rangel replied. "Why shouldn't we get the money? There's no guarantee CPS would get it if we don't."
Still, I was curious about how this all came about. Mr. Rangel said he didn't call Ms. Steans, but that his lobbyist likely "held some conversations."
UNO's lobbyist is Victor Reyes, who ran much of City Hall during the Daley years. He didn't return my phone call.
But, in checking around, I hear that the guy who really pushed the proposed $35 million grant was House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose district has turned overwhelmingly Latino in recent years and who probably could use one of those new UNO schools in his district. Mr. Madigan Ã¢â‚¬â€ his spokesman did not return calls Ã¢â‚¬â€ was so hot for the grant that he actually tried to add it to some other bills, multiple reliable Springfield sources say.
Mr. Rangel confirms that the money "quite possibly" would have gone for work in Mr. Madigan's district, where schools are "severely overcrowded." And guess where that new soccer high school is? At the north end of Mr. Madigan's legislative district, 5050 S. St. Louis Ave.
So it goes in our fair capital city. Education money is short, and CPS is talking about shutting schools. But those with friends have their ways.
Welcome to the great state of Illinois.
Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregHinz.
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