Administration keeps Clemente on a leash

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Clemente High School is one of only three schools on “full financial supervision” and the only one that must have every expenditure approved by its regional office.

A year ago, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas created “financial supervision” and took action against Clemente. It was not until January, however, that the School Reform Board ratified the move; it adopted a policy directing the CEO and Department of Internal Audit to set guidelines for putting schools on and taking them off financial supervision and for the process in between. As Catalyst went to press, a copy of the guidelines had not been received, despite repeated requests.

Vallas’ action against Clemente came in the wake of two School Board audits that found widespread lapses in recordkeeping and some violations of board guidelines, such as paying a consultant’s travel expenses. The action also followed a front-page Chicago Sun-Times article that slammed Clemente’s use of state Chapter 1 money.

An audit of the school’s internal accounts found over $15,000 in “prohibited expenditures,” including more than $14,000 paid to a retired staffer for keeping the pop machines stocked. An audit of state and federal programs at the school found a wide range of minor transgressions. A typical example involved two teacher assistants who were supposed to be working in the math lab but who worked in the attendance office instead.

However, when board officials talk about Clemente’s finances, they go beyond recordkeeping and guidelines.

Chief Accountability Officer Pat Harvey credits Clemente with good intentions, but she says it needs “a lot of help in building a SIP [school improvement plan] that will support academic achievement. That’s what their budget is for, especially state and federal Chapter 1 funds.”

Jorge H. Perez, who was part of the auditing team and now supervises Clemente’s spending as business manager of Region 2, points to trips and consultants as primary offenders. Of their use of consultants, he says, “They were hiring salsa musicians from New York and Puerto Rico. We have the same people right here in Chicago.”

Ballet de San Juan

“They told us we should have gotten Urban Gateways,” says Judy Wachna, until recently Clemente’s financial secretary. “Well, Urban Gateways is nice, but it’s not the Ballet de San Juan. … If everything has to be within these tight margins, well, then it has to be. Sometimes the kids come out the losers for that.”

While the contract with Ballet de San Juan met board guidelines for the use of consultants, the contract with prominent Puerto Rican musician Hector Domenech did not—Clemente used state funds to pay $4,267 in airfare for Domenech, and the school didn’t document his work properly, according to the audit.

Asked what it would take for Clemente to get off financial supervision, Intervention Director Phil Hansen said, first, a clean audit. But he went on, “In addition … we’ll be making sure that their budget is lined up with the school improvement plan, that there are no questionable activities with discretionary funds.”

Pat Harvey says even during supervision Clemente made poor decisions that central office rescinded. She notes, for example, that Clemente wanted to hire retired Principal Lou Geraldi with consultant money to advise Acting Principal Eduardo Negron. The audit that put Clemente on probation was conducted during Geraldi’s tenure. “Why would they need him to serve in that capacity?” she asks.

Meanwhile, central office itself is hiring retired administrators to help struggling schools.

Further, as part of its campaign to overhaul high schools, central office recently sent Clemente a business manager to mind the books, Armando Medina.

For some faculty members, financial supervision has been a headache. “I haven’t been able to get anything done this year,” laments Marcos Vilar, a teacher and director of the school’s nationally recognized salsa band, Son del Barrio.

“We were supposed to get $2,000 of sound equipment to replace and upgrade what we had,” he said.. “It was in our budget. It took half the year to get a purchase order ready. I submitted the purchase order; nothing came back. It’s hard to really know what happened, but it didn’t used to be this way.”

“If a purchase order comes in Monday, it goes to purchasing by Tuesday or Wednesday,” says Perez, adding that the whole process should take no more than two weeks.

Some might take “a little bit longer because somebody in central office has to approve it,” he acknowledges. But in general, he says, poor planning by schools is a much bigger problem. “I know sometimes they’ve sent over the purchase order Friday to take the kids on a field trip Monday.”

Farren, Morse

The other schools on “full financial supervision” are Farren and Morse elementary, where audits of internal accounts led to dismissal warnings against the principals.

Thirty-four other schools are on “partial financial supervision,” according to the Office of Investigations. Remedial measures range from restitution by an employee to monitoring by regional offices. These schools include the nine—Austin, Brown, Curtis, Englewood, Lewis, Libby, Prosser, Revere and Tilton—where principals were dismissed last year in conjunction with their schools being put on remediation or determined to be in educational crisis.