“It’s the quintessential Chicago story. They used political connections to grow into one of the largest, most powerful organizations in the city.”
That’s how Andrew Schroedter sums up The Rise and Fall of Juan Rangel, the Patron of Chicago’s UNO charter schools, recently published in Chicago Magazine. Written by Cassie Walker Burke in collaboration with Andrew and his colleagues at the BGA, the lengthy article combines original reporting with a rich aggregation of other reports, beginning with the first stories in the Sun-Times last February by Dan Mihalopoulos and Tim Novak.
The story’s focus is Juan Rangel, one of Chicago’s most connected and influential community leaders, and how he came to power at UNO after his predecessor, Danny Solis, was appointed to an aldermanic vacancy. And how, in a few short months, he lost all that power.
“They did use the jobs, the contracts, the capital and the money to help them build power,” Schroedter explains. “They employed the daughter-in-law of Ed Burke. Contracts and jobs went to other UNO insiders, relatives. We did see that old-fashioned nepotism there.”
But the story begins before Rangel. “It’s really Daley that brought it from point A to point B,” he says. UNO began to exert significant power in Chicago when it sent a clear signal to Mayor Daley that it was willing to be helpful to the Mayor. From there, the once grass-roots organization began its meteoric climb.
But it wasn’t always in the schools business. When then-CPS chief Arne Duncan contacted them about taking over some closed Catholic schools and operating them as charters, Rangel seized the opportunity and never looked back. But he needed money.
“What impeded that growth in the beginning was capital,” says Schroedter. “Because in order to fix up or open schools you needed money, and in the beginning they did not have a lot of money. But as the years went on and their political connections grew, that changed.”
In a few short years, they went from one school to a “campus” system of sixteen. And their buildings were, by most accounts, physically attractive and well-run. The neighbors Schroeder and his team talked with were pleased.
“The general consensus was, we’re happy that UNO’s here. We like having an option in our neighborhood,” they told him. “And even though the test results show they’re essentially neck-and-neck with their neighborhood school, people seem to like it. And seem to appreciate it. So I don’t think that can be discounted. However, I don’t think you can tell the story of UNO without talking about how greed got the best of them.”
Over five years, through a combination of payouts from CPS and the State, UNO has acquired $280 million in various taxpayer funding for its now-sixteen schools.
“UNO has had access to capital that other charter school operators just haven’t had,” Schroedter concludes. But the problem is that it’s very difficult to follow the money.
“Despite all this tax money that’s being funneled to them , there’s not a lot of people that are watching how this tax money’s being spent. And one of the things we found most alarming is that nobody’s watching the store, he says. “UNO in some cases pays itself rent on the buildings they own, which is fine. They’re paying themselves hefty management fees, which total ten percent, so you’re talking about five million dollars in 2012. Now that’s just money that goes from the charter schools to a parent organization, and they can do whatever they want with that…so it’s almost like taxpayer money is disappearing down this black hole.”
The expenses for UNO’s schools – including salaries and operating costs – exceed that of comparable public schools. Rangel was paying himself a salary higher than Barbara Byrd Bennett’s – and she runs more than 500 schools. Some of those expenses would be hard to justify under almost any circumstance.
“We FOIA’d the credit card bills for the UNO Charter School network. 48,000 dollars on meals in 2012. Trips to New York and Beijing and Disney World and on and on and on,” he tells us. “Things that, if a local principal was doing, he’d lose his job.”
In the end, Rangel, and his long-time friend (and Senior Vice President) Miguel d’Escoto lost their jobs. And the charter school network they created has become a target for those who believe the charter system is siphoning money away from the traditional public schools.