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CPS IG Investigating School Board Member's Business Interests

By Chuck Sudo in News on Dec 23, 2014 8:30PM

Both of Rahm Emanuel’s primary challengers in the February mayoral election, Ald. Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, have made education a wedge issue as the campaign enters its final weeks. Specifically, Fioretti and Garcia have called for an elected school board. The current mayoral-appointed school board “favors those with clout or financial interest and gives them undue influence,” Fioretti said. “Chicagoans should have a real say in the direction of our schools.”

Last year, Emanuel chose Deborah Quazzo to replace Penny Pritzker on the Chicago School Board after Pritzker resigned to become Commerce Secretary. Quazzo, an investment banker, is a champion of charter schools, speaks of how hard it is to make money from education and utilizes business buzzwords like “efficacy and engagement” in her educational philosophy. (Her children went to the prestigious private Latin School.) In effect, Emanuel replaced one rich white woman with another, which raised the hackles of Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and CPS parents demanding the school board put more resources into neighborhood schools instead of doubling down on charters.

Now Quazzo finds herself the target of an investigation by new CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler after the Sun-Times reported companies in which Quazzo has an interest have received $3.8 million in business from the school district. The majority of that business—$2.9 million—came after Emanuel appointed her to the board.

The five companies in which Quazzo has an ownership stake are supposed to provide ACT preparation or online help with reading, writing and math for students. One company stands to receive another $1.6 million contract. Quazzo, for what it’s worth, has been transparent about her investment in the companies, has recused herself from board votes regarding those businesses and believes there’s no conflict of interest between sitting on the school board and investing in companies that do business with CPA. But she claimed she was unaware of the largesse the school board has bestowed upon those companies since her appointment.

“I don’t follow that stuff,” she says. “All I care about is if a product is working well. If a product is making a difference for kids, that is a great thing. I have no idea where products are being used. That is not my job.”

Although Quazzo doesn’t draw a salary from the companies doing business with CPS, she stands to make a tidy return on her investment if they’re sold. Although she said she “(doesn’t) follow” what happens with the companies in which she has an ownership stake—which seems odd for an investment banker—CTU and Fioretti have, however and both have called for her resignation. “Once appointed, she should have withdrawn all investments in any companies associated with the Board in order to diminish any conflict of interest and remove her ability to profit as a result of her school board appointment,” said CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle. “Instead, she decided that her profits were more important than her stewardship over a system of more than 400,000 students, and we regret that she made that choice.”