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Brown: UNO gearing up its own political machine involving charter schools

Updated: March 6, 2013 6:31AM

My first encounter with the political machinery of the United Neighborhood Organization Charter Schools network came last spring when I was poking around in an Illinois House race on the Southwest Side.

I was curious as to why a certain Misty Gillian of Auburn, Ind., had donated $1,500 to Silvana Tabares, a Democratic legislative candidate being backed by UNO CEO Juan Rangel and other charter school advocates.

Was Gillian such a big believer in charter schools that she had taken an interest in Chicago inner-city Latino politics, I wondered?

When I left a phone message for Gillian, however, I received a quick return call from her husband, who offered a more familiar if mundane explanation for his wife’s political activity.

Kevin Gillian said his company, TFC Canopy, was the subcontractor that had supplied the shiny aluminum panels for the exterior of UNO’s sparkling new soccer-themed elementary school at 51st and Homan. It was in that capacity that he had been solicited for a campaign donation—and gladly complied, he said.

Political contributions from contractors on public building projects are par for the course in Chicago, of course, but what concerned me was that we were catching a glimpse of a new model for a back channel political machine involving charter schools.

Now, thanks to a Watchdogs investigation in Monday’s Sun-Times from reporter Dan Mihalopoulos, there’s a much clearer picture of the extent of that machine and its self-perpetuating insider dealings.

As a recipient of a $98 million state grant to build new charter schools, UNO has taken advantage of its power to give out millions in construction contracts to raise campaign funds from those same contractors — with an eye on making even more friends in the Legislature, the original source of that $98 million.

In addition, UNO’s special status as a private operator of publicly-funded charter schools has allowed it avoid the state’s normal sealed-bid process with the not so surprising outcome that many of its contracts have gone to companies with familial or political ties to the organization.

It all shapes up to make UNO an increasingly powerful player in local Hispanic politics, not coincidentally in alliance with many of the same individuals who previously were at the center of the thoroughly-disgraced and since-disbanded Hispanic Democratic Organization.

Mihalopoulos found that UNO has given millions of dollars in construction contracts to companies owned by the brothers of its senior vice president of operations, Miguel d’Escoto. Other contracts went to the plumbing business owned by the sister of former HDO chieftain Victor Reyes, who helped UNO lobby for the school construction grant, and another to a security company owned by the brother of state Rep. Edward Acevedo, another HDO ally.

He also reported that UNO contractors donated at least $51,000 to Tabares in her successful state representative campaign, and UNO employees even gathered most of the signatures on her nominating petitions.

What’s wrong with any of that?

Well, most fundamentally, I don’t think the purpose of creating charter schools was to establish new political fiefdoms with their own bases of patronage — whether of the classic or pinstripe variety.

I’m not knocking the UNO schools. They operate in difficult neighborhoods and have a reputation for delivering a better education than many of the other charters.

But we need to extract the charter operators from this type of political activity before it becomes the norm.

As it stands now, I don’t think any other charter operators are nearly as far along in their political entanglements as UNO.

Rangel, UNO’s politically astute CEO, did not return my phone call. But I know from past conversations he would argue UNO builds its schools faster and at a lower cost than if it had to deal with the rules and procedures of the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy.

Rangel would also say that his organization’s primary purpose is to empower the Latino community and that its school construction contracts have helped serve that goal.

I don’t doubt it, although it’s funny that in their bid for Latino empowerment that UNO found it necessary to award $1.67 million in construction work to Windy City Electric, an Irish-American-owned company with political ties to Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who maintains a good working relationship with UNO’s political allies on the Southwest Side.

UNO is now asking the state to pump additional monies into its contract pipeline to build more schools. Unless the group takes politics out of its contracting equation, the answer ought to be no.

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