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Inspector probes possible ‘turnaround’ conflict

Board member Carlos Azcoitiapplauds performance by students from South Shore Fine Arts Academy Chicago Board Educatimeeting Monday November 20 2013.

Board member Carlos Azcoitia applauds a performance by students from the South Shore Fine Arts Academy at the Chicago Board of Education meeting on Monday, November 20, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 18, 2014 6:04AM

The CPS inspector general is investigating whether alleged conflicts of interest should have prevented two Board of Education members from voting to “turn around” three struggling Chicago schools.

If even one of the two named members is found to have a conflict, two schools could see a reprieve from having their staffs fired and management handed to an outside firm, according to the district.

Among its long list of concerns, a coalition called Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education pointed to board member Carlos Azcoitia’s employment by a college that trains teachers who work in schools managed by the Academy of Urban School Leadership.

Citing that employment, Azcoitia recused himself in April from votes to give control of three elementary schools to AUSL.

But Azcoitia did cast votes to reconstitute Gresham Elementary, Dvorak Math and Science Academy, and McNair Elementary by firing their entire staffs.

“It seems that if one has a conflict of interest in voting for the contract, then he also has a conflict of interest in voting to turn the school over to a contractor that uses his program exclusively to train its teachers and administrators, rather than use veteran CPS teachers or administrators,” read the April 30 letter signed by The Lawndale Alliance, Blocks Together, Teachers for Social Justice and others.

The coalition also cited Board President David Vitale’s previous role as AUSL’s unpaid board chairman. Vitale also voted in favor of turning around the schools.

CPS inspector general James Sullivan declined to comment beyond confirming the investigation.

“We’ve received the complaints, and we will follow up to determine if there are any ethical violations,” he said.

Azcoitia said he does not work for the university’s teacher training program but recused himself anyway from giving the schools to AUSL to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. He said he stands by his vote to reboot the schools since CPS now has its own program for bolstering struggling schools under the new Office of Strategic School Support Services.

“Based on the data, the schools qualify for reconstitution. For that piece, I voted yes,” Azcoitia said. “I don’t think my first vote implies directly that’s the only alternative, when we have OS4.”

Azcoitia, appointed to the board in December 2012, voted last May to reconstitute five elementary schools and turn them over to AUSL, according to Board records.

Vitale — who has been on the board since May 2011 and voted on previous turnarounds — did not abstain because his ties to AUSL are in the past, CPS spokesman Joel Hood said.

“All Chicago Board of Education members present at the April 23 public hearing acted in accordance with the Board’s Code of Ethics policy,” Hood said in a statement.

Four yes votes were required to approve a turnaround; two of the seven members were absent for the April 23 votes.

All five present voted to turn around Gresham, but board member Andrea Zopp voted against rebooting McNair and Dvorak, making their outcome 4-1. If either Azcoitia or Vitale are determined to be in conflict, Dvorak and McNair could be spared because the vote would drop to 3-1. If both board members are found in conflict, the board would lose its quorum and all three turnarounds would be void.

Coalition members have long fought turnarounds, school closings and charter conversions, saying CPS should spend its limited money investing in traditional neighborhood public schools.


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