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Gov. Quinn to restore taxpayer funding for UNO school

UNO CEO Juan Rangel (left) MartCabrerJr. UNO's then board chairman announce plans for reforms recent news conference.   |

UNO CEO Juan Rangel (left) and Martin Cabrera Jr., UNO's then board chairman, announce plans for reforms at a recent news conference. | Sun-Times File Photo

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Updated: July 9, 2013 6:12AM

Just six weeks after suspending a state grant to the politically influential United Neighborhood Organization, Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration announced Friday that it will restore taxpayer funding for a half-built UNO charter school on the Southwest Side.

Quinn cut off funding to the state’s largest charter-school operator April 25, after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed how UNO paid $8.5 million from its $98 million state school-construction grant to companies owned by two brothers of the organization’s No. 2 executive, Miguel d’Escoto.

Quinn aides told UNO officials the contracts with d’Escoto’s brothers violated a requirement in the grant contract that the state be notified of “any actual or potential conflicts of interest.”

But on Friday afternoon — at an hour politicians often use to disclose decisions that could be unpopular — a spokeswoman for Quinn told the Sun-Times that UNO mended its ways enough to deserve the next installment of $6.2 million in grant funds.

That will allow the halted construction of the new UNO Soccer Academy High School, at 51st and St. Louis, to resume and get done in time for the school to open for the new school year, said Sandra M. Jones, a spokeswoman for the state agency that oversees the grant to UNO.

“UNO has taken several steps to change the way it operates, and we will be closely monitoring all future behavior to ensure UNO is living up to the reforms announced,” she said in a statement.

Longtime UNO chief executive Juan Rangel held a news conference last month to apologize for the contracting scandal and to introduce new boards of directors for UNO and its charter-school network, which includes 13 schools in Chicago with more than 6,500, mostly Hispanic students.

Jones said UNO also has implemented “strong policies against conflict of interest and nepotism” and had terminated d’Escoto Inc., owned by Federico “Fred” d’Escoto, and Reflection Window Co., owned by Rodrigo d’Escoto. The two men are brothers of Miguel d’Escoto, a former city transportation commissioner who quit his $200,000-a-year position with UNO after the Sun-Times stories about the insider deals were published in February.

D’Escoto Inc. and Reflection Window had worked on every school that UNO has built using state grant money, according to public records.

The IFF, a Chicago-based non-profit group with extensive involvement in the charter-school movement, will oversee the completion of the high school, and all companies working on the project “must certify they are free of conflict of interest,” Jones said.

When the grant was suspended, the state also required UNO to pay for an independent audit. That’s not done yet, but Jones said the auditors have told state officials “there are no significant financial issues.”

Had the high school not opened on time, that would have imperiled funding that the Chicago Public Schools provide to UNO. Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year make up almost all of the charter network’s operating budget.

Quinn appeared at the groundbreaking last year for the Soccer Academy Charter High School and at other events at UNO schools since 2009, when lawmakers approved the $98 million grant sponsored by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).

Quinn was urged recently to reverse his decision to suspend the grant by powerful Ald. Edward Burke, a major campaign donor to the governor. Burke’s 14th Ward is home to five UNO schools and the half-built Soccer Academy High School, and Burke has formed a political alliance with Rangel.

Rangel­ — who has led UNO for 17 years and also was campaign co-chairman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011­ — said late last month he was stepping down from his unpaid UNO board spot. But UNO’s new board chairman, Martin Cabrera, brushed aside calls for Rangel’s $250,000-a-year job as CEO.

On Friday, Cabrera said, “We thank Gov. Quinn and the state of Illinois for their diligence and commitment.”

UNO officials said they now expect the new high school to open in September.

Before starting work on the project August 2012, UNO had spent nearly $55 million from the state grant to finish a school and build two others.

The next installment of state funding will pay for work already completed on the high school. UNO will need another $23 million to finish it. That would leave $15 million from the 2009 state grant.

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