Landlords for 2 proposed Chicago charter schools have ties to Emanuel
BY BECKY SCHLIKERMAN AND DAN MIHALOPOULOS Staff Reporters January 16, 2014 6:36PM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel with the Rev. Charles Jenkins at US Cellular Field, in August 2011. | Sun-Times library
UNO won’t expand in 2014
For the first time in six years, the United Neighborhood Organization won’t expand its charter network this year, the chairman of UNO’s board said Thursday.
Chicago Public Schools officials are weighing plans for more charter schools, but UNO withdrew its application for four new schools.
One existing UNO school performed so poorly it made the CPS “watch list.” Having a school on the list restricts a charter operator from expanding.
UNO previously got approval for two new schools for the coming school year, but that won’t happen, said Freddy Santiago, UNO’s board chairman.
“I personally couldn’t see ourselves worrying about expansion right now,” Santiago said. “We have work to do with what we have.”
UNO has been regrouping after losing $15 million in state funding and coming under scrutiny by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission after the Chicago Sun-Times reported last year that it had paid millions of dollars from a $98 million state school-construction grant to companies owned by brothers of one of its top executives.
Longtime UNO chief executive Juan Rangel — who co-chaired Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 campaign and also had ties to other politicians including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) — stepped down from his $250,000-a-year post last month in the wake of the scandal.
UNO — which had only one charter school in 2005 — now operates 16 publicly financed schools with 7,587 students.
Updated: February 18, 2014 6:07AM
Two people with ties to Mayor Rahm Emanuel could be among those to benefit from new, publicly financed charter schools up for approval next week by Chicago Public Schools officials.
A South Side minister allied with the mayor and a real estate broker who is an Emanuel friend could end up as landlords for new schools, collecting rent paid for by taxpayers.
The Chicago Board of Education is set to vote next week on 22 proposed schools being sought by nine charter operators. Those that are approved would come back before the school board in May for final approval.
One of two schools that Des Plaines-based Concept Schools chain hopes to open next school year — at 8522 S. Lafayette Ave. in Chatham — would be the first tenant in a building owned by an arm of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.
The Rev. Charles Jenkins, its pastor, touts on his church’s website how he “filled a key role” on Emanuel’s transition team when the mayor was elected in 2011. Jenkins gave the invocation at Emanuel’s swearing-in. He is an Emanuel appointee to the City Colleges of Chicago board and a board member of the private group New Schools for Chicago, which helps fund new charter schools.
If approved, the Concept school would pay nearly $529,000 in rent its first year, with annual lease payments going up to more than $961,000 by the fifth year, according to documents filed by Concept. It said the payments would go to the Fellowship Educational and Economic Development Corp., a not-for-profit headed by Jenkins.
The building on Lafayette Avenue was purchased for $7 million in 2011 by Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., based in Oklahoma City. In August, Hobby Lobby turned over the deed to the property to Jenkins’ church at no cost, property records show. The gift was the “largest donation to an African-American church in American history,” according to documents submitted as part of Concept’s school application.
The building has 75,000 square feet of usable space, all of which would be occupied by the school.
Concept has hired Hermene Hartman, publisher of an African-American publication that endorsed Emanuel in the 2011, as a consultant.
“Rather than just build a big church to open on Sunday, Pastor Jenkins really looked at how to use the land for the community,” Hartman said. “I think Jenkins went on a search, looking for interested parties, and they were the selected ones.”
Jenkins could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Also on the South Side, Be the Change Charter Schools wants to open a charter at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St., which is owned by Paul Levy, a real estate broker and principal of Prairie Management & Development Inc., who is a longtime friend of the mayor.
In 2010, Levy testified on Emanuel’s behalf when he beat a residency challenge to stay on the mayoral ballot. Levy testified then that he vacations with Emanuel, that each attended the other’s wedding and that he helped the mayor find his North Side home.
Levy didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A representative of Be the Change said the group was unaware of the connection between the art center and the mayor.
“That relationship was never shared [with] us,” said Sonia Wang, a founding design team member for the charter group, which wants to open an elementary school.
Wang said the site, which hosts events and has art studios, was chosen because it has enough space for a school and could be expanded.
Founded by educators, Wang’s organization plans initially to lease 15,000 square feet, paying $180,000 in rent in 2015, with the rent rising yearly, to $500,000 by 2019, as the school expands.
Almost all of the Be the Change and Concept budgets would come from taxpayers, most of it from CPS, records show.
“CPS’ top priority when reviewing applications is to ascertain if the proposed school has a rigorous academic model and a clear, strong financial plan,” schools spokesman Joel Hood said, declining to discuss specific proposals.
Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said, “The mayor has confidence that [schools CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the board share a sole priority when it comes to our schools: meeting the goal of providing a high-quality education so our students are 100 percent college-ready and 100 percent college-bound.”