Backers fall short with money, disclosure

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The question of how much funding each of the new Renaissance schools will get from the business-backed New Schools for Chicago seems straightforward and simple. But asking it didn’t lead to a simple answer.

In February, New Schools for Chicago teamed up with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office to announce it had awarded $3.7 million to eight schools; so far, the group has not released a school-by-school breakdown of the grants.

Meanwhile, New Schools is not yet halfway to its $50 million fundraising goal set by parent group, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. The groups says it has raised $24 million and is considering hiring a professional fundraiser, according to documents filed with the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

According to Avis LaVelle, a former School Board member and mayoral press secretary who now manages public relations for New Schools, the group has pledged to raise “$25 million locally [and to] help the city raise $25 million from foundations and national organizations. We haven’t started to tap into national foundations yet. We’re in the real infancy stages of this.”

The new schools connection?

By piecing together information from the startup schools and the business group itself, Catalyst has been able to account for only $2.9 million of the $3.7 million announced in February. Individual schools have received anywhere from $45,000 to $1 million.

Insiders say the grant amounts weren’t disclosed at the press conference because New Schools feared the disparities would overshadow the big announcement.

As it turns out, $2 million of the grants come from two existing school-business partnerships, and only one has a firm connection to New Schools.

A $1 million partnership between JP Morgan Chase/Bank One and the University of Chicago “was before New Schools and it would have happened without New Schools,” says Linda Wing, deputy director of the Center for Urban School Improvement, which will run the charter. The money will be used to promote parent and community involvement in the university’s new charter school.

LaVelle contends the money can rightly go under the group’s banner because JP Morgan Chase/Bank One “wants to channel those contributions through New Schools.” New Schools, however, will not administer or oversee spending.

Warren Chapman, vice president for community relations at Bank One, did not return calls for comment.

The other $1 million partnership can claim a solid connection to New Schools through the chair of its board of directors, Don Lubin. The law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, where Lubin is a partner, was the first corporation to answer the mayor’s call for businesses to fund new schools, pledging $1 million over four years to start the Legacy Charter School in North Lawndale.

Law requires transparency

When it comes to sharing information, New Schools for Chicago is playing it close to the vest—close enough to earn criticism in a newspaper editorial.

For one, it asked members of its advisory board—which includes Chicago Public Schools officials—to sign non-disclosure agreements, even though the board would be discussing how to support start-up public schools.

Second, at press time, the group was still holding off on a formal public announcement of individual grants. “We have to check with all of the corporate donors to be sure they are comfortable with the release of the information,” LaVelle said. “This has taken a lot longer to work its way through than anything anyone imagined.”

Although the leader of one startup school told Catalyst that New Schools officials told her not to disclose the amount of the grant, the information will eventually have to be made public. “Any grant or contract made by or between a public body and another public body or private organization is public record,” says Rebecca Watts, public information officer for the Illinois State Board of Education. (Schools do not have to disclose the grants until they have the money in hand.)

Third, New Schools has never publicly outlined its grant criteria, though LaVelle says the priorities will be to invest in small schools and schools with innovative programs.

In fairness, interviews with leaders from the startup schools suggest the group is trying to target funds where they are most needed. “We came in with money already in hand from our own board members and supporters,” notes Ricardo Estrada, executive director of Erie Neighborhood House, which received $45,000 because it had already raised $138,000 and has a fundraising plan. “We didn’t need it, which was good and bad, a double-edged sword.”

Only charters need apply?

Another question is whether New Schools will show preference to charters over other schools.

The corporate leaders backing New Schools include strong champions of the notion that market forces can, and should, be a driving force behind school improvement; they have supported charters in part because charter teachers are prohibited by law from joining the powerful Chicago Teachers Union.

All seven new charters got startup money, but so far only one of three eligible performance schools, Pershing West, has received funding; the other two, Tarkington Elementary and Uplift (which will replace Arai Middle in Uptown), are still waiting to find out if they will get grants. Performance schools are operated by the district, and their teachers belong to the union.

Martin Koldyke, the venture capitalist who chairs the Academy of Urban School Leadership, which will operate Tarkington, says New Schools put the Tarkington proposal on hold because “there were people on the board who were concerned about the size of the school, and because after two and a half years the governance would revert to a local school council.” While LSCs are elected and are legally required to include parents and community members, the charter law makes no such requirements of charter school boards.

The Academy’s board shares some of the governance concerns, Koldyke says, but he adds, “We really reacted to the desire on the part of the neighborhood to have the opportunity to have more input at the school.”

Another lingering issue involves the definition of a Renaissance school. While CPS’s definition includes, for instance, schools built to relieve overcrowding and new schools that were in the works before Renaissance was announced, New Schools isn’t willing to stretch the definition that far.

That raises the question of whether the two sides have crafted a common strategy for Renaissance.

The mayor appears to be siding with business. “All of those schools are not going to be under the Renaissance umbrella,” says LaVelle. “The mayor would like a more clear definition. This is really about developing high-performance schools.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.