Who is Iris Martinez and why is she busting unions on behalf of 'school reform'? Senator and Aspira Operator Have Tight Relationship

[Editor Note: This is the next article in an on-going series taking an in-depth look at the Aspira Charter organization and its controversial relationship with the Chicago Public Schools. For further information or to read the articles published in Substance (print edition) and on line here at, just click on Jim Vail's name or type in Aspira above at "Search The latest article to appear in print is in the September 2009 Substance and will not be posted here until Substance print subscribers have received it (it's being mailed today). George N. Schmidt, Editor].

Aspira CEO José Rodriguez (above center, at an Arne Duncan charter schools media event four years ago) was nicknamed "The Godfather" by some city officials who had to deal with his demands. Rodriguez's Aspira organization personifies the crony capitalism and clout politics that have lay beneath the surface of most of Chicago's charter schools operations since the city's massive charter expansion began one year after Arne Ducan became CEO in July 2001. While Duncan now tells a gullible national media "I'm not for charter schools, I'm for good charter schools," Duncan's Chicago record shows that charter schools of even the most corrupt kind were OK with the future U.S. Secretary of Education provided they were clouted in through traditional Chicago politics. For five years, teachers and parents who tried to blow the whistle on the numerous layers of corruption at the Aspira charter schools and in the broader Aspira organization were fired or politically persecuted by Rodriguez and his allies. Substance photo and caption by George N. Schmidt.Aspira corruption hit the headlines this past year after the Chicago TV, radio and print media ran stories about a lawsuit filed on behalf of three girls who were strip searched, along with allegations of grade changes and faking attendance records.

Two years ago things were so bad at the Aspira Haugen Middle School that a few parents started a blog that stated the school was unsafe, the environment unprofessional and some classes did not have regular teachers or textbooks a few months into the school year.

Yet, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan served as head of the Chicago Public Schools, he lobbied on their behalf to open more charter schools, and he specifically forced some aldermen to give the green light to charter schools in their wards, despite the objections of union leaders. The question that should then be asked is who is Aspira, and how did they get to run four charter schools and be in line to open more charter schools with millions of taxpayer dollars?

And how could Duncan before he left to join President Barack Obama in Washington recommend to renew their charters last October after the allegations of strip searching and other corruption surfaced publicly at a Board of Education meeting last August?

They must be very powerful as several people familiar with the Aspira organization – which has been registered as a non-profit organization serving the Latino community since 1968 - have stated. They must have a "roof" as the Russians would say, a business that pays protection to play the game.

Iris Martinez and the brutal politics of Chicago's "Latino" communities

For three years, the Chicago Board of Education's directory of high schools has listed the address of the Aspira Mirta Ramirez Computer Science Math (etc., etc.) high school as "2435 N. Western Ave." (above) while the school was relocated to 1711 N. California. The original Mirta Ramirez site (above) was in a warehouse. Despite repeated complaints from parents and health and safety inspections (which, among other things, detected rats in the food service area), Mirta Ramirez remained in operation. At one point, the school even claimed that it had scored the highest gains in math of any Chicago "high school" (although there were never audits of the claims of Chicago's charter schools). When the school was first started, it was telling the press that it would soon be a Chicago version of the "High Tech High School" of San Diego, California. Even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had been very generous to Chicago's novelty schooly thingies throughout the 21st Century, eventually stopped encouraging Aspira's aspirations to become "High Tech High." Substance caption and photo by George N. Schmidt.Enter Illinois State Senator Iris Martinez and the incestuous relations between her office and the Aspira operation. In her l ast re-election campaign, a challenger to her seat cried foul when he noticed that Aspira's president Jose Rodriguez also served as the treasurer for Martinez. Sonia Sanchez, who is the chairwoman of Aspira's Board of Directors, is also the chief of staff to Sen. Martinez.

Martinez won re-election to the Illinois State Senate in the 20th District last year after a close race against former Illinois Representative Bill Bradley and Carlos Guevara.

"Sonia Sanchez is the Chairman of the Board for Aspira, yet she is also Iris Martinez's Chief of Staff. Jose Rodriguez is the Aspira CEO and he is also Iris Martinez's campaign committee treasurer. There is a clear conflict of interest here," Democratic challenger Guevara stated in a press release during the election.

Guevara called for an investigation citing 501(c)(3), which states that nonprofit organizations shouldn’t be used for electioneering and political purposes.

Aspira has relied heavily on state funding. In 2006 the organization received over $10 million in government funding, double the amount it received the previous two years.

According to the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501C3 organizations, of which Aspira is one, are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office.

"In the last three years Aspira has received over $20 million from the state," Guevara said. "That's a lot of money floating that way very, very easily."

When the conflict of interest first surfaced in the Spanish language media, Sanchez and Rodriguez said that they can in fact do what they do.

Above: Aspira's "Rosa Parks High School." Two years ago, Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan signed a Board Report (a motion for action to the Chicago Board of Education) to award Aspira a contract to begin "Rosa Parks High School" at 1860 N. LeClare in Chicago. When critics later noted that the site was an abandoned warehouse that neighbors warned should not be entered unless you were armed ("the rats in there are bigger than pit bulls, and meaner," on neighbor told a Substance photographer who checked out the site), CPS apparently had second thoughts about the proper location for "Rosa Parks High..." The LeClare project was quietly abandoned and Aspira went on the get other funding for other projects. Substance photo and caption by George N. Schmidt.Sanchez told Extra! News last year that there was not a conflict of interest because her role with Aspira has been strictly voluntary to help raise funds for the organization, while Rodriguez said the claims made by Guevara were “crazy" because his records are straight and challenged Guevara to call the attorney general’s office.

“What I choose to do in my free time is up to me," Rodriguez told Extra News. "If I want to go running in Humboldt Park, I go running in Humboldt Park. That is my decision, and my free time.”

Cover up from Lisa Madigan

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office looked into the allegations and said that if Aspira stated on its tax forms that it has not engaged in any political contact with government officials, this is not a violation of the charity laws because Rodriguez must have worked on Martinez's campaign during his own personal time.

According to the federal IRS website, “The prohibition on political campaign activity applies only to tax-exempt charitable organizations, not to the activities of individuals in their private capacity.”

"It's not illegal," said Theresa Harris, the chief of the Charitable Trust division of the Attorney General's office. "Charities can lobby. A person can in their free time work on a political campaign. But if he were using company time, then that would be illegal."

Harris did admit, though, that the facts in this case look “suspicious.”

Strip searching middle school female students

Rodriguez is no stranger to conflicts of interest and acting arrogant. The charter school operator whose organization is currently facing a civil rights lawsuit for strip searching female students, was picked by Mayor Richard Daley to serve on the Chicago Board of Education in 1994, according to media reports. Rodriguez was then questioned about a conflict of interest while he served on the Roberto Clemente High School Local School Council and voted to award his Aspira organization contracts with school funds. Even though it was clear the Puerto Rican native would not get enough votes to move his nomination out of the City Council's Education Committee, he was still defiant and told the Chicago Tribune at the time: "I will not withdraw because there is no conflict of interest." Daley was later forced to withdraw his controversial nominee after Rodriguez testified that as a member of the Clemente council, he voted specifically to award a contract to his own firm.

When the Tribune asked Daley if Rodriguez's appointment was just another political connection between a potential board member and an organization seeking leverage in the school system's $3 billion budget, Daley just shrugged. "I think you're in between. One side and the other side. These are volunteers on local school councils. The problem is he voted for the budget," Daley told the Tribune at the time. ASPIRA of Illinois is a Puerto Rican nonprofit organization created to address the social needs and education of its community. Aspira's connection to Northeastern Illinois University no only provides it with one of its charter school campuses (above, the Pantoya school), but also enabled some of Aspira's people to utilize their connections to the university in other ways. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Aspira currently operates the Mirta Ramirez Computer Science Charter School, the Aspira Haugen Middle Charter School, the Antonio Pantoja High School campus and the Aspira Early College Charter High School.

On January 8, 2009, attorney Jim Fennerty (above right) announced that his law firm was representing two female students who had been strip searched a year earlier at the Aspira early college charter middle school on orders from the school's administration. The mothers of the two girls (who asked not to be named because their daughters are minors) are seated beside Fennerty in the photo above. What Finnerty did not mention was that six months earlier, an Aspira teacher had tried to blow the whistle on the strip search, going as far as the Office of New Schools at CPS. For her trouble, teacher Meg Sullivan was fired by Aspira, while nothing was done about the strip searches until the lawsuit was imminent. Substance photo and caption by George N. Schmidt. In addition to the Chicago Board of Education's recent investigation into allegations that Aspira ordered three female students strip searched at its Early College Charter School, a former teacher charged Aspira with changing student grades without teacher notification, erasing attendance records which compromised data as accountability benchmarks and promoting a revolving door of administrators, students and teachers that has led to increased instability in the school.

The teacher filed a retaliatory discharge for being fired after blowing the whistle on Aspira and has settled. Another former teacher who was fired because of trumped up charges also settled out of court.

The ties between Senator Martinez, her Chief of Staff Sanchez and Aspira’s Rodriguez seem to be rather tight. According to sources who wished to remain anonymous because of their positions in government, the two have been very close for years. Meanwhile, Aspira has gotten "big money" in comparison to other non-profits operating in Illinois.

"Jose Rodriguez and Sonia Sanchez ha ve had a relationship before," said the source. "What's amazing is that the press hasn't written about this. And the money keeps rolling in. Their power base just grows exponentially."

The power (and power behind) Senator Iris Martinez

When Aspira teacher Meg Sullivan (above right, at microphone) tried to report the strip search, grade changing, and attendance irregularities to the Board's Office of New Schools, instead of getting an investigation of Aspira, Sullivan got herself fired by Aspira. The Aspira charter school where Sullivan had worked had rehired her for the 2008-2009 school year a few weeks before Sullivan went to Catherine Sugrue in the Office of New Schools with proof of the things people were saying about Aspira's schools. Sugrue, a sister of powerful alderman Patrick O'Connor, did nothing about Aspira but reportedly told Aspira that Sullivan was complaining. The result: Sullivan was fired and Aspira's cover up, sanctioned from the highest places at CPS, continued into another year. Substance photo and caption by George N. Schmidt.Martinez was the first Latino woman elected to the Illinois State Senate in 2003 and is currently the assistant majority leader in the Illinois State Senate. In 2004, Martinez was awarded the Hillary Rodham Clinton Leadership Award by the Illiniois Democratic Women's organization as well as the Profile in Courage Award from Planned Parenthood. Martinez was also the sponsor of a bill in the Illinois senate that would lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Chicago. While her original bill asked to increase the number of charter schools to 200, the charter school bill that finally became law this past summer, will raise the number of charter schools from 60 to 120, with 45 new charter schools allowed for Chicago.

Rep. Rich Bradley, who ran against Martinez and has received over $10,000 from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) last year, was the chief sponsor of the charter bill in the Illinois House. When contacted by Substance, Bradley made no apologies for his support of charter schools which hurts the CTU when public schools close and are replaced with non-union charter schools. Instead, he said charters need to work on a viable funding mechanism so they can grow.

In terms of Aspira and Senator Martinez ties, Bradley shrugged off Guevara’s accusations of a conflict of interest because it was made during the heat of a political battle.

“It came in a very hectic time of the political campaign,” Bradley said by phone. “I chose not to bring it up.”

Several local politicians — including Bradley and Alderwoman Marge Laurino (39th Ward) — supported Aspira’s takeover of the newly built Haugen Middle School to relieve overcrowding in the Haugen Elementary school, despite the opposition of many in the Albany Park community and the fact that the controversial charter operator had no proven track record of educating children.

When it was being built, the Aspira Haugan charter middle school at 3729 W. Leland, was supposed to relieve the overcrowding at the nearby Haugan elementary school. By the time it was completed, the building (which cost taxpayers between $19 and $14 million, depending upon the source) was turned over to Aspira for the charter operator's first middle school. Alderman Marge Laurio told one Substance reporter that Arne Duncan forced her to give her support for the turn over of the building to Aspira. Substance photo and caption by George N. Schmidt.Many thought the new Haugen Middle School would be a regular public school with the middle school teachers moving to the new building because the elementary school is considered to be doing a good job of educating many immigrant children who live in the community.

Laurino admitted that Aspira is turning out to be a big problem and told Substance that they are “not living up to their contract.” [Bradley is no longer a representative for the district after giving up his seat in the last election to Alderman Richard Mell’s daughter Deb Mell to run for the senate.]

It is the state senator who determines how much money the schools get from the state treasury when she requests money for her community, Guevara said. Martinez along with former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich cut a lot of a fter school funding as well as building renovations for public schools in her district, including such elementary schools as Avondale, Yates, Logandale, Falconer and Darwin. During that same time, the financial amount received from the government for Aspira grew tremendously. According to the Illinois 990 Tax Form, Aspira received about $4.5 million in 2004, $5.8 million in 2005 and $10 million in 2006 and $10 million 2007. Much of that money has gone to their charter school operations.

When Martinez oversaw the cuts of roughly $20,000 per school in her district, she accepted an $18,000 raise, Guevara noted.

"It is particularly cruel for Martinez to make damaging cuts to schools and school children while accepting a big raise herself," Guevera said. "The state senator helps determine the schools that get money, it is her decision to fight for money for (all) the schools."

Next: The second part in this series will examine Aspira’s sudden decision to withdraw its application for more charter schools after a highly critical report issued by CPS surfaced at the last June Board of Ed meeting. 


September 9, 2009 at 7:43 AM

By: kugler

Corruption Legacy

what a shame duncan is to be spouting off his alleged success in Chicago. As Jim reports in his series everyone can now see, just in this one charter organization, how many students have been hurt by the board and its policies to promote corruption over learning.

Good reporting. Why do not the other media organizations cover this criminal activity?

John Kugler

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