Take 5: UNO Charter feud, more cash for Aramark, group cuts ties with SUPES

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UNO Charter - Archer Heights. A feud between UNO Charter and the parent organization could force the sale of some buildings.

Photo by Elizabeth Rodriguez/courtesy of UNO

UNO Charter - Archer Heights. A feud between UNO Charter and the parent organization could force the sale of some buildings.

The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) says its separately incorporated charter school chain owes it money for management services. If it doesn’t pay up, UNO will be “forced” to sell off some school buildings to recoup nearly $3 million in back payments, according to a Sun-Times report. Meanwhile, leaders of the charter school chain say they stopped paying up because they don’t know what its former parent organization is “doing with the money” and because of yet another investigation into UNO.

All these problems could spell trouble for current UNO students. “Parents need to know if their children will be attending their same school in the fall or if they need to scramble to find a new place for their children,” writes UNO CEO Rick Cerda to CPS Board of Education Chairman David Vitale.

The charter board had already planned to take over all management services after this school year — the result of a Sun-Times investigation into nepotism and questionable contracts that also led to the resignation of Juan Rangel, the former head of both the parent organization and the charter school network. In addition, the organization remains under the scrutiny of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission over complaints it had defrauded bond investors by lying about insider deals.

2. Noble in Uptown? … So far Noble Street campuses have been located around struggling high schools or overcrowded ones. But now Noble Street leaders seem to be looking at the North Side, confounding some residents who say their neighborhood schools have space and are on the upswing.

Noble Street officials are proposing to move the Noble Street Academy, which opened last year at a temporary downtown location, to 640 W. Irving Park in Uptown. This would put it in close proximity to Lake View, Uplift and Senn high schools. Lake View and Senn have had a resurgence of energy around them, and Senn is underutilized.

The school was approved last year and uses a curriculum modeled after the one at the elite boarding school, Phillip Exeter Academy. When the school was approved, Noble officials said they would work with the city and school district to find a good location for the school.

“We believe the Exeter collaboration, coupled with Noble’s record of success and nearby public transportation, will attract students from the North Side but possibly from other parts of the city, which will not impact enrollment at any one particular high school significantly,” said Constance J. Brewer, Noble’s new Chief External Affairs Officer, in a statement.  “We also hope to attract families that might otherwise leave the city to pursue other high school options because of our unique collaboration with one of the most successful high schools in the country.”

Not too far away, in East Rogers Park, residents are already organizing against a proposal to open another Noble Street in the fall of 2016. Brewer said it is “just a possibility.” Just last week CPS posted proposals that showed that Noble was considering the area for one of three schools. One group has launched a petition, noting that the area already has two charter schools, run by UNO and Chicago Math and Science Academy. The petition, which has 270 signatures, asks Ald. Joe Moore not to support the Noble Street and instead to invest in nearby Sullivan High School, which is “experiencing a period of wonderful growth and has an excellent principal leading that effort.”

3. Sometimes you just wonder… This week came the news, first reported by WBEZ, that Aramark is more than $20 million over budget in its contract to clean the schools—which means no savings despite CPS projections.

As you will remember, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley sold the Board of Education on privatizing custodial services by saying that the district could save $80 million over three years and the schools would be cleaner. Now he’s saying that he still thinks there will be savings in Years 2 and 3.

But it is getting harder to believe these promises. After all, the Sun-Times reports that one reason Aramark is spending more is that they are cleaning more square footage than in the original contract. Why? CPS forgot to count some administrative offices, branches, stadiums and even entire schools.

Clarice Berry from the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association once again called for the contract to be voided. Principals have been complaining since their custodial services were turned over to Aramark that their buildings are filthy. Yet CPS says that an independent audit found that the schools met the cleanliness standard that Aramark promised.

Meanwhile, WGN-TV reports that mice and roaches at the Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy forced a shut-down of the school’s cafeteria this week.

4. More SUPES fallout… When Catalyst first wrote in 2013 about the $20 million SUPES contract, one justification for failing to require bids was that the company was the only organization that could award a certification through the National Superintendents Association. But we also pointed out that the certification raised red flags: It had launched  just months before, was at least partly created by SUPES itself, and was connected to a training program run by SUPES.

Now, given the federal investigation into SUPES, the AASA is cutting ties with the company. According to Education Week, AASA will run the training program itself.

Gary Solomon also talked to Education Week, defending the work his company did in Chicago. He says that after initial complaints about the quality of the training, the curriculum was tweaked to include Chicago specific issues, such as student-based budgeting and navigating school closures. “I am very proud of the work we did in Chicago, and we have a long working relationship with the district, and we think that our work has added value to the leaders that we’ve been fortunate enough to work with,” Solomon said.

5. Where’s the science??? Remember when CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett threatened to only have 10 percent of students take the PARCC, the state’s new mandated assessment, and then-Supt. Christopher Koch promised to pull funding from the district? Well, at the same time, the state was defying the federal government by not giving students a science assessment.

Now the state may be in trouble. In a letter dated April 20, the federal government demands that Illinois come up with a plan and timeline for giving a science assessment by June 30th. They also have placed Illinois on “high risk” status, which could result in sanctions, including the loss of federal money, according to The Tribune.

State officials said that the old science exams were obsolete because new standards were being implemented.

While we’re on the topic of tests, it’s worth mentioning that Rep. Will Guzzardi’s parent opt-out bill never made it out of the House in time for a critical deadline last week — making it unlikely to go anywhere before the end of session. It might not have mattered anyway, as Gov. Bruce Rauner had already promised to veto it.

A few last notes … Today’s the deadline for CPS to notify the Chicago Teachers Union if it wants to extend the current labor contract for another year. That is, if it can afford to pay a 3-percent wage increase. Chances are that’s not going to happen, though.

The school district is broke. It faces a $1.1 billion deficit for next year and is waiting on Springfield to get a handle on what kind of state aid it can expect — and whether any pension debt relief is on its way. The district has until the end of August to finalize its budget, so there’s a good chance negotiations will continue until then.

Also, in related news, former CEO Paul Vallas gave Crain’s Chicago Business an illuminating interview on what he thinks Chicago needs to do to get out of trouble. Apart from suggesting an outside agency oversee the district’s finances, Vallas also encourages the city to put a stop to opening new charter schools and even suggests elections for at least some school board members. A radical fix indeed.

Finally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has indicated he wants to take out $200 million in debt to pay off some of the risky and complex loan deals known as interest-rate swaps. As the Chicago Tribune puts it, the move “illustrates how deep the financial hole has become.”

  • Concerned Parent

    charter parents will NOT need to scramble – the hard-working and budget
    reduced because of charters, neighborhood school, is ready to take ALL
    Even if they come unprepared form a charter school.