Chicago elected school board Rally makes demands as Byrd-Bennett pleds guilty


Illinois State Representative Robert Martwick

CPS operations and procedures, corruption and charter schools were the target of the Tuesday morning rally for an elected Chicago School Boardacross the street from the Federal Court, 222 S. Dearborn, where former head of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Barbara Byrd-Bennett (BBB) appeared and plead guilty on charges related to the $20 million no-bid contract with suburban Chicago SUPES Academy and Synes. Chicago and Illinois legislators and school related groups had center stage. 


Alderman John Arena

"Citizens in this city spend 60% of their tax bill on Chicago Public Schools and yet they have no accountability over the actions that the Board takes," said Illinois State Representative Robert Martwick, 19th District, about the appointed Chicago Board of Education (BOE). 

"To blatantly steal money from the children of Chicago and their educational opportunities offends me to my core," he said, referring to the BBB case. 

While a great deal of outrage and passion have been heard about CPS corruption, Alderman John Arena, 45th Ward, pointed out, "We have heard nothing from the Mayor or [Forrest] Claypool [CPS' current CEO] about the situation that still exists in CPS." 

"We need to fix the schools in our districts and stop funding charter schools," demanded Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th Ward. 


Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza

"Parents and communities have been rendered so voiceless that they were left with no alternative but to starve their bodies for a neighborhood school," said Juti Brown, National Director, Journey for Justice Alliance, and a Dyett High School hunger striker. 

"The unelected school board has shown again and again that it is running our schools as profit centers for the financial benefit of private investors and entrepreneurs. Chicago needs an elected board of education, one where board members who have financial conflicts of interests must bear the scrutiny of the voters at the ballot box," demanded Logan Square's Cassie Creswell, representing Raise Your Hand (RYH). 


Juti Brown

Speaking about the BOE, Katelyn Johnson, Executive Director of Action Now, said, "Emanuel's hand-picked appointees have typically come from investment firms, business backgrounds or work in the legal profession. They have proven themselves to be incapable of running the financial business of CPS and have largely been unqualified to address the educational needs of students. Now is time for Mayor Emanuel to support an elected school board. It is clear that he does not have the management skills to run a school district and an elected representative school board will provide the necessary checks and balances to bring transparency to bear." 


Illinois Representative Jamie Andrade, Jr., Cassie Creswell with Katelyn Johnson (r)

The Rally
Explaining the sequence of events that started in June 2013, Creswell said that as the no-bid contract was being agreed to, CPS announced that they were slashing district-run school budgets by more than $160 million. 

RYH repeatedly brought the SUPES contract to the attention of the BOE as an example of reckless spending while they chopped school-level budgets. 

Now, two years after CPS' CFO Tim Cawley was explaining to RYH that SUPES was a “team” decision and a “strategic investment,” BBB and Gary Solomon, her former employer, are being arraigned in federal court for fraud. Yet, the man who brought them together and the new owner of the revamped SUPES company, Dr. Joseph Wise, continues to do business with Chicago Public Schools. 

Since 2011, Wise’s charter management organization has received $18 million and his company Atlantic Research Partners almost $5 million, according to Creswell. Atlantic has a contract, approved under BBB, for $280 per hour professional development services through 2017. Another company BBB worked for, Catapult Learning, part of the same $66 million board-approved deal, charges up to $400 per hour.   

"Despite the district’s dire financial circumstances, the unelected board never seems to consider cutting contracts of dubious value---particularly those going to political cronies," said Creswell.  

Over the past few months, RYH has highlighted more than $177 million in contracts for the BOE to review and potentially cancel. "We have received no response," pointed out Creswell as she cited some examples:

  • Almost a year ago, the Sun-Times exposed the political clout connections of three construction companies,  getting millions of dollars a year. Those three companies have already received more than $1 million each this fiscal year.
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a company that CPS’s own Inspector General (IG) urged the district to stop doing business with in January 2013, has continued to receive millions, and is part of a $20 million contract approved by the Board this summer.
  • LEAP Innovations had its contract renewed this summer. Its former Board Chair now sits on the BOE. His replacement is a political donor to the Mayor Emanuel's campaign fund. Another LEAP board member, Michael Moe, is the business partner of former board member, Deb Quazzo, whose business investments are still under investigation by the CPS IG. 

Johnson followed by saying, "Community members are shocked and angered that at a time of shameful budget cuts and devastating school closings, the Mayor and his hand-picked Board members allow so much waste to occur. 

"Toxic swaps that cost the District millions could to be renegotiated but those who benefit from those swaps sit on the Board. We refuse to allow mayoral appointments of criminals and cronies to sit on the Board and have leadership roles." 

Why an elected school board?
"Enough is enough," said Brown. "People pay taxes and have no way to hold the people who set policy accountable." While some say an elected school board would be too political, Brown asks, "How could it be more political than it is right now?" 

The corruption that was revealed is not the reason for an elected school board, said Martwick. The reason is a failure of democracy. 

"The gift of democracy is that you get to change your government and as of today we are handcuffed. Now is the time to change that. 

"It is time to give the voice back to the citizens of Chicago so that people like those at Dyett don't have to starve themselves to bring attention to a closed neighborhood school and educational opportunities for their children. 

"Will an elected school fix the laundry list of unconscionable things that Raise your Hand has brought up? Not necessarily. Corruption can happen with elected as well as appointed boards. But, what it will do is to finally and for once and for all, give Chicago citizens a say over the direction of their school and what the education of their children will be as well as meet what democracy demands." 

What is next?
The Chicago Progressive Reform Coalition (Chicago Progressive Caucus) is working on a resolution to call CPS leaders before the City Council's Education Committee, said Arena. "In the short term, anyone who had anything to do with these decisions needs to be removed. In the long run we need an elected school board. 

"We need to put confidence back in the minds of taxpayers, parents and children that CPS is being run competently fairly and without this type of corruption." 

The bill in the Illinois House to allow for an elected school board in Chicago now has 51 co sponsors reported Martwick. Legislators are tweaking it and working on amendments. It is hoped that it will be ready to be introduced at the beginning of next year. 

When asked about opposition, Martwick said, "On a day like today, if you listen very quietly, you will hear the sound of the last opponents of an elected school board changing their minds."

Across the street
Barbara Byrd-Bennett was across the street, as the Rally was underway. She pled to one count of wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years.

Prosecutors agreed to drop 19 other counts and agreed to recommend a reduced sentence, which is expected to be approximately seven and a half years. These considerations come with her "full and truthful cooperation."


Other background from Dyett
Carol Marin's interview on WTTW's Chicago Tonight prior to the end of the Dyett High School hunger strike gives additional information around the CPS issues of accountability.


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