About a year ago, Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education, an ad hoc coalition of grassroots organizations filed a complaint to the Inspector General for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), asking him to investigate the relationships among CPS board members and the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL). The Inspector General was asked to examine the Board of Education’s last votes to turn over three schools to AUSL for turnaround to determine if there were any conflicts of interest among board members and AUSL; to analyze the relationship — if any — between political contributions to Mayor Emanuel from AUSL board members and the significant increase in the number of Chicago Public Schools turned over to AUSL on a no bid basis and to determine if AUSL turnarounds are the most cost effective solution, given their less than stellar results.
We provided an addendum to our complaint on May 19, 2014, and the former Inspector General Sullivan was quoted in the media confirming that he was investigating. We have made several inquiries since that time and were told that the findings would be included in the CPS Inspector General’s 2014 annual report. We have reviewed the report, and unless we have missed something, there was no mention of our complaint or how it was disposed. We re-submitted the complaint to the current inspector general, Nicholas Schuler, in January, 2015. We do not know if an investigation will be conducted.
AUSL has enjoyed strong relationships with the Chicago Board of Education since its inception in 2001. These relationships have only strengthened over time. Board of Education President David Vitale served as an unpaid advisor, and eventually became an unpaid Chief Administrative Officer for CPS between 2003 and 2008. He is the former board chairman for AUSL (2009-2011) while CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley is the former managing director of AUSL. Both men resigned their posts with AUSL and immediately assumed their current positions with CPS. Both men are in a position to approve CPS contracts, including the AUSL contracts. They say they are not in a conflict of interest because they are no longer with AUSL. David Vitale voted to turn the schools over to AUSL. (Tim Cawley is not a member of the board, so he has no vote.)
Having David Vitale and Tim Cawley in their current positions is very troubling. There are several vendors in the state who have been authorized to provide school improvement services. Yet, AUSL seems to have an exclusive, no-bid relationship. Under Rahm Emanuel, AUSL has nearly tripled the number of schools under management, going from 11 schools in 2011 to 32 schools in 2014. AUSL board members have contributed more than $63,000 to Mayor Emanuel’s campaign between 2011 and 2014.
Dr. Azcoitia currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership at NationalLouisUniversity. National Louis is AUSL’s exclusive teacher preparation partner. Dr. Azcoitia voted to turn the three schools around, but recused himself from voting on the AUSL management contract, because he didn’t want to “give the appearance” of having a conflict of interest. It seems to us, if there was an apparent conflict of interest in voting for the management contract, there was also an apparent conflict of interest in voting to turn the schools around, given that there were no alternative consultants considered to manage the turnaround other than AUSL. The Azcoitia vote to turn these schools around should have been nullified.
Before the matter of the school turnarounds was brought to a Board of Education vote, members of the Dvorak Local School Council and Parent Advisory Committee met with members of the Board to inform them that the Local School Council unanimously voted to use the transformation model for school improvement. Unlike the AUSL turnaround model in which all the staff are fired and replaced, the school transformation model calls for the development of a comprehensive education plan and intensive professional development for the principal and teachers. The LSC shared performance data to indicate that the AUSL schools in North Lawndale, as a group, were not performing as well as North Lawndale schools as a group-in spite of the fact that AUSL schools each get management fees of $300,000 per school and an additional $412 per pupil. It should be noted, that by the time the latest AUSL management contracts expire, CPS will have spent nearly a half billion dollars on AUSL solutions since the company started. This does not include the millions of construction dollars spent on AUSL schools when they are taken over.
Dvorak parents and LSC members provided the board with documentation indicating that the school transformational model has been successfully implemented at CPS in the past at a fraction of the cost of the AUSL mode. The members of the Board of Education were also provided a list of state-qualified vendors who could do this work. The board had this information in hand and still voted to turn the schools around using the AUSL model. To this day, there are no opportunities for qualified companies — let alone qualified minority- and women-owned businesses to compete for this work at CPS. Minorities make up 92 percent of the CPS school district.
The Board of education has clearly abdicated its fiduciary duties of loyalty and care. If they were a corporate board, the shareholders would run them out on a rail for not acting in the best interests of the company. Since CPS is not a publicly-traded company, a thorough investigation of their contracting process and tightening of their ethics policies would go a long way.