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Poor performance leads CPS to put six charter schools on ‘warning’ list

Chicago Public School CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett  speaks mediPaul Cuffe Math Science Technology Academy Monday February 25 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago

Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks to the media at Paul Cuffe Math Science Technology Academy on Monday, February 25, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 27, 2013 7:38PM

Chicago’s Board of Education has approved the renewal of 30 charter schools Wednesday, including the politically connected UNO network recently under fire for funneling contracts paid for by millions in state grants to relatives of UNO allies and a top executive.

The district also put six charter schools on a “warning” list because of poor performance, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced Wednesday.

Before voting, Carlos Azcoitia, the newest board member, questioned whether charters were subject to the same ethics reporting as other CPS schools, and if not, “what financial accountability is there to avoid conflicts of interest, what do we look for when charters receive monies that are public monies?” he asked without mentioning any names.

Byrd-Bennett said she and CPS general counsel were looking to at possible legal actions the district might take “when a charter is not meet its financial ethical obligation.” New contracts rolled out for charters at the time of their renewals would also require charter schools to abide by the same conflict of interest policies as other district schools.

Byrd-Bennett named Ace Tech, Aspira-Early College, Catalyst-Howland, Galapagos, North Lawndale-Collins and CICS-Basic charter schools to a warning list for failing to meet academic performance requirements in at least two of the last three school years. “At CPS we require all of our schools whether neighborhood or charter to provide students with a rigorous and high quality academic foundation that they need to succeed. That’s why we are steadfast in our desire to hold every school, every school, to the same high expectation,” she told the board.

Schools failing to improve by the end of the current school year would be required to develop a remediation plan.

Galapagos Director of Operations Brad Johnson said he was informed of the watch list for the first time Tuesday night. “Galapagos was not provided any opportunity to participate in a dialogue surrounding this issue,” the charter organization said in a statement. “Galapagos believes that this demonstrates a failure of professional responsibility on the part of CPS, and is a prima facie example of the capricious and covert nature of CPS’ closure process.”

The warnings follow last week’s recommendation to phase out two charter schools for poor performance: Aspira Charter’s Mirta Ramirez high school campus on the Northwest Side and Betty Shabazz Charter School’s DuSable campus on the South Side. Aspira’s plans to open a new campus were also put indefinitely on hold, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said.

Every school among the 12 charter operators due for renewal recommendations was reviewed for several factors, including contract compliance, charter governance, academic growth and test scores, parent input and history of fiscal management.

A Sun-Times investigation earlier this month showed that more than a fifth of a $98 million state grant that funded the construction of Soccer Academy Elementary and other new schools built by UNO went to four contractors owned by family members of a top UNO executive and the group’s political allies.

Miguel d’Escoto, UNO’s senior vice president of operations, since has resigned; his brother’s company has been suspended from UNO operations. UNO hired a former federal judge to review how the charter network selected contractors. And the state’s Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity (which oversees the school-construction grant UNO received in 2009) is investigating whether UNO violated conflict-of-interest restrictions in its grant agreement.

Chicago Teachers Union organizer Norine Gutekanst told board members during Wednesday’s meeting that it’s “reckless” to renew UNO’s charter before the conclusion of any investigations.

“We are stunned that CPS leadership would ignore revelations about UNO, and would today recommend that you approve an unconditional 5-year-renewal,” she said. Aside from the contracts, “there are unsustainably high levels of debt carried by UNO and given the appearance of fiscal improprieties that cry out for investigation and caution and the possibility that they’ve been in violation of their charter agreement with CPS.”

Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos

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