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Civic leaders make gutsy call

Juan Rangel President / Chief Executive Officer United Neighborhood Organizati(UNO) talks with Chicago Sun-Times. Wednesday March 28 2012. | Brian

Juan Rangel, President / Chief Executive Officer of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) talks with the Chicago Sun-Times. Wednesday, March 28, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 4, 2013 6:29AM

‘The children of Illinois have a right to a great education. Unfortunately, some of the adults entrusted with this task have failed them.”

Those words stand out at a time of raging debate about education reform. They come from a May 29 Chicago Sun-Times op-ed penned by Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, and Rey López-Calderon, executive director of Common Cause Illinois. They are respected civic leaders and longtime advocates for responsive and responsible public policy. The duo is speaking out at a pivotal time and taking on one of their own. They are calling for the resignation of Juan Rangel, the chief executive officer of the United Neighborhood Organization. And they want legislative hearings and a state investigation of UNO, the state’s largest charter school operator.

It’s a gutsy move. Their voices bring integrity and community cred, and could be a prelude to Rangel’s swan song.

Allegations of mismanagement, corruption and nepotism have rocked UNO for months. The Sun-Times has reported major questions about UNO’s operations, including the fact that $8.5 million of the funding went to companies owned by two brothers of Miguel d’Escoto, a top UNO executive. After the revelations, d’Escoto resigned his $200,000-a-year job. The Sun-Times also reported that three of Rangel’s relatives are on UNO’s payroll.

Following the news reports, Rangel tapped a retired judge to investigate UNO’s operations and procedures. Last week, Rangel called a news conference to embrace the judge’s recommended reforms. Rangel has stepped down from his own board and the Public Building Commission of Chicago, but plans to hold on to his $250,000-a-year job at UNO.

Not enough, respond Puente and López-Calderon.

“The situation at hand suggests that Rangel has crossed the line,” they wrote in the Sun-Times essay. Rangel’s mismanagement has betrayed the “mission of educating children — many of whom are Latino, low-income, at-risk and generally in need of the opportunities that UNO schools would offer.”

“You can’t just whitewash this away,” López-Calderon told me in an interview. “Our issue is that nobody has called for accountability from the top down. If this were a public corporation, this guy would have been sacked long ago.”

But Rangel has clout. His once-grassroots community group has morphed into a massive agency, winning $98 million in state funding and tight alliances with the likes of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Ald. Edward Burke, the powerful City Council finance committee chairman.

Rangel has long argued that his community benefits when Latino leaders like him lock arms with powerful interests. You get more of the bacon when you hang with the hogs.

What are the children getting? López-Calderon and Puente ask. UNO’s powerful allies come from outside the Latino community, so how are they accountable to us? How effectively is UNO educating our children? Are the millions going to UNO justified when the city is closing 49 Chicago public schools? Have investigative agencies, such as the Illinois attorney general, adequately monitored UNO?

López-Calderon and others are pressing officials for answers, he says. And there’s more to come, he promises. “By Sylvia and I doing this, it makes it easier for others to come out.”

Bring them on.

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