Free reign, then reined in

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Eight years ago, Clemente High School was under intense public scrutiny amid allegations that state poverty funds had been misspent. The charges sparked calls for more oversight, and for public schools, as well as the district, to be held more accountable for spending practices.

Today, Clemente’s finances are “orthodox,” says Barbara Radner, who testified before a legislative committee that was looking into the matter in 1997 and now serves as a literacy and curriculum consultant for the school. And since it’s on probation, Clemente has to submit its budget to the area instructional officer for approval and allocate a significant chunk to CPS-approved academic programs.

“The money is not really discretionary anymore,” concludes social studies teacher Harold Matz, a teacher representative on the Clemente LSC.

At a March 15 meeting, Clemente’s LSC reviewed line items budgeted for the $2.2 million in poverty funds the West Town school is slated to receive next year. The process was a 10-minute formality since Area Instructional Officer Richard Gazda had already signed off.

Spending for probation-mandated programs accounts totaled just over $341,000, or 15.5 percent, of the 2006 discretionary budget. Those expenses included: $94,500 to expand the reading program, $84,000 for the math initiative and $64,650 for science, and $98,000 for teacher professional development through Northwestern and DePaul universities. (Another $49,000 from the general education fund will pay for new math and science textbooks.)

One school staffer who attended the LSC meeting complained that Clemente has to use discretionary money to pay for necessary expenses, such as a third assistant principal who oversees student affairs and a small schools program; five additional security guards ($185,957); a swimming pool lifeguard ($28,957); and summer school ($110,000).

There was not enough discretionary money left to pay for a planned expansion of a tutoring program for students who have failed courses, which this year cost the school some $190,000.

Principal Irene Damota declined to comment on the school’s budget.

Investigation shook community

None of the current LSC members, including Damota, were affiliated with Clemente in February 1997 when the Illinois House of Representatives convened a special committee to look into spending allegations made by the Chicago Sun-Times. The incendiary story, which proclaimed the school a “hiring hall” for patronage, alleged that the school brought artists and writers to Chicago to raise money for the Puerto Rican liberation movement, and indoctrinated its students in liberation lore.

At the heart of the largely political controversy, which pitted factions within the Puerto Rican community against each other, was whether Clemente’s LSC had misspent poverty funds. The faction that controlled the LSC held its own hearings and issued a counter-report, arguing that children in this low-income, multi-cultural community had benefited from the expenditures.

No one involved in the controversy was charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

In its final report in 1998, the special committee determined that Clemente had spent some of those funds questionably, but also that CPS and the state had not provided enough oversight.

Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who was not on the committee, recommended more oversight of lower-performing schools. Beginning this year, Clemente and other probation schools, have had to direct spending on CPS-crafted mandates, but the general guidelines for spending poverty funds were never formally revised.

To contact Alejandra Cerna Rios, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.