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Another Chicago Charter School With Clout? Why We're Suspicious Of The School Closing Process

By Kevin Robinson in News on Feb 25, 2013 8:00PM

2013_2_25_BCCS_logo_small.jpg If you've been following the news recently, you're aware that the Chicago Board of Education is considering closing as many as 129 elementary schools, citywide, with almost 200 more potentially subject to turnaround — a process where an outside consultant comes in, fires all the adults in the building and then micromanages the school with new, private-sector employees — or to co-location — a situation where a charter school is established in the same building as a public school. Part of debate and criticism around the proposed school closings is not just the impact that closed, co-located and turned around schools will have on students and neighborhoods, but also that charter schools aren't included in the list.

The critique goes like this: If there is more classroom capacity than students citywide, and schools need to be closed, why aren’t charter schools part of the consideration, especially when they are often in the same neighborhoods as schools slated to be closed? And if there are currently too many elementary schools, or elementary schools that aren’t being fully used in the communities they were built to serve, why is CPS considering opening as many as 60 new charter schools?

In Chicago especially, the Board of Education (appointed by the mayor rather than elected) is viewed by many parents, teachers and principals with suspicion. This round of proposed school closings is no different, but with an added layer of suspicion that it’s all a scheme to open more charter schools for connected and clouted people and groups in the city. The suspicion has been exacerbated by the fact that the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization of the owners of Wal-Mart, who are prominent supporters of charter schools, gave the city a $500,000 grant to pay for the public hearings on school closings. Catalyst Chicago writes:

The School Utilization Commission that is advising the district on closings is staffed by the Civic Consulting Alliance, a not-for-profit that does business consulting for city government. The Civic Consulting Alliance is housed in the same office as New Schools for Chicago, an organization that funds and advocates for charter schools. New Schools for Chicago also received a $220,000 Walton Family Foundation Grant.

And suspicion of charter school operators and their organizations and people has been further exacerbated by recent revelations of a contracting scandal in UNO-run charter schools that smacks of clout, and a recent complaint was filed with the state Inspector General by parents against UNO alleging that the group is much deeper in debt than it claims and is using state funding to service that debt, rather than educate students.

To better understand the entanglement of charter school advocates and organizations and how they intersect with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his Board of Education’s school closing agenda, we took a closer look at a proposed charter school in the Bridgeport neighborhood, after we received a tip that a member of the design team for that school was also a member of CPS’s management team. If you don’t understand how the Board of Education has schools in this city organized, that’s OK; it’s a bureaucracy of Kafka-level proportions and if you didn’t know better you’d think it was designed to keep parents and students from engaging with their schools.

CPS has the city broken up into geographic sections, called “Networks.” These include, for example, the Midway Network, the Skyway Network, the Pershing Network. These groupings of schools are then managed by network chiefs, and their staff, who report back to the board downtown. In the Pershing Network, which includes Bridgeport, Chinatown, McKinley Park, Englewood and Bronzeville, there are 14 schools that are considered “underutilized” by CPS. Underutilized is a calculation based, roughly, on 30 students per classroom. That calculation assumes that all classrooms hold 30 children, regardless of whether those classrooms have been converted into libraries or art and music rooms, are no longer usable as a classroom due to ADA upgrades, or if those classrooms are for special education, which by law cannot have more than seven students. Of those 14 “underutilized” schools, CPS is looking at closing two in Bridgeport, McClellan and Graham, with two more vulnerable to either a turnaround or co-location.

Jeannie Kim is employed by the Board of Education, where she works as an instructional effectiveness specialist for the Pershing Network. Her job, like her 17 other counterparts citywide, is to work with principals to evaluate teachers from an administrative perspective, and make sure CPS's official Teaching Framework is being enforced. In fact, according to several people from the Chicago Teachers Union we spoke to on background, people like Kim have the power to get tenured teachers terminated, or at least put on a remedial track, if not reassigned to a different school altogether.

Besides being a member of the Board of Education's administration staff, Jeannie Kim is also a founding member of the design team for the proposed Be the Change Charter School. In fact, Kim’s name appears in fundraising emails obtained by Chicagoist, and on the charter school’s not for profit incorporation papers as the organization’s agent. And on the not for profit's most recent annual report, as filed with the State of Illinois, Kim is listed as the organization's secretary. These documents list a condo in the West Loop owned my Kim and a man named John Bang.

The Chicago Board of Education's Code of Ethics (PDF here) acknowledges the unique relationship that charter school contract holders have with the board of education, and it expressly forbids employees from serving on the governing board of a charter school, or from having an "economic interest" in any charter school, contract, business or work before the board. We asked the Board of Education’s Inspector General and Office of Ethics for comment on whether or not Kim’s involvement with a Charter school was a violation of the board’s code of ethics.

Marielle Sainvilus, press secretary for the Board, told Chicagoist in an email that "an employee would have to have an economic interest in the contract' to have violated the code, and that "we do not know if any of these codes have been violated" but that it is "possible that there may not be any violations depending on the individual's involvement with the Charter."

Anyone who's spent any time around power, politics and clout in Chicago knows, however, that you don't have to get caught breaking the rules to profit from your position in this city. And Jeannie Kim's employment with CPS and her involvement with a group that's planning on winning a contract from CPS to operate a school in a neighborhood with schools listed as "underutilized" raises many of the questions that typically come up when clout in Chicago is discussed. What are their motives? Who stands to profit? How does Kim's employment in the CPS administration benefit Be the Change, and what connections and inside knowledge has she been sharing with this charter school? What edge do they have thanks to her involvement? And finally, what economic interest does Jeannie Kim have in the Be the Change charter school?

Besides the clout questions, we also wondered what motivates Jeannie Kim to start a charter school in a neighborhood that she doesn't even live in. Her biography on the Be the Change website says she taught for CPS before leaving for the charter school world, where she eventually became Department Coordinator for the Carter Woodson charter school. With the exception of her current employment in CPS administration, everything about Kim's career suggests that she doesn't believe the public school system is the right fit for her. So why take a job with the public schools while working to set up another school that's apart from the neighborhood public schools?

Chicagoist called Jeannie Kim to give her the opportunity to speak directly to these issues, and to disclose any economic interests she might have in the Be The Change charter school. Kim refused to speak with us, either on or off the record. The Board of Education has not given us any indication that they were aware of Kim's involvement in the Be The Change charter school, but they have told us they are investigating. We've asked that they keep us informed of that investigation, and we intend to update our readers as we learn more.

BCCS_Docs by

Be the Change Charter School Updates! Email by Chicagoist

Fundraiser Email From Kim by Chicagoist