For decades, there’s been a tug of war in Chicago between taxpayers and the Teachers Unions. Now, thanks to the help of Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel, there’s a new player, the United Neighborhood Organization. And the Hispanic political group has used its connections with powerful Chicago Democrats to secure a $98 million government grant – the largest for a charter school group in the nation.
Money and kids
While the teachers unions and the Latino political action groups fight over taxpayer dollars, both sides seem to forget why they’re receiving hundreds of millions of dollars – to educate our children. Unfortunately, the school children keep finding themselves physically pushed onto the front lines of street protests and labor battles. In this author’s opinion, anyone that uses 7 year-olds to push political propaganda, especially at violence-prone street demonstrations, doesn’t have the children’s best interest in mind, regardless of what they claim. And the teachers unions and charter schools are both guilty.
Last week, hundreds of demonstrators packed Chicago’s Union Station to demand more funding for the dozens of Chicago charter schools. Among them, a large number of small school children dressed up in their school uniforms, armed with commercially produced placards and dangerously plopped in the front row of the protest.
“Support House Bill 980!” one marcher yelled. HB 980 would raise the percentage of education funding the charter schools receive. Charter school advocates would seem to have a very legitimate argument. Currently, charter schools only receive about 75% of the funds sent to the Chicago Public School system for each student. CPS keeps 25% and passes the remainder along to the charters. Now, charter schools want 100% of the funding, considering they are the ones educating the students.
A look at the couple hundred demonstrators at Union Station revealed a shadowy, politically connected team of executives and power players from the Chicago Democratic Machine. The protest was quietly led by groups like UNO, Chicago International Charter Schools, Noble, and Perspectives.
Media investigation reveals corruption
In its ongoing plan to eliminate the entire Chicago Public School system and the teachers unions along with it, the city of Chicago has been building charter schools as fast as the state and federal government will fund them. Currently, one of the largest providers of education among the charters is a little-known Hispanic community organization called UNO – United Neighborhood Organization.
In all, UNO operates 11 charter schools servicing 5,500 students. According to the organization’s website, UNO is a Latino association, ‘dedicated to the successful assimilation of Hispanics into American society.’ An investigation published by the Chicago Sun Times yesterday however, reveals the group’s business dealings show its mission to be enriching Hispanics with taxpayer money more than assimilating them into American culture, unless that is their idea of American culture.
In 2009, Illinois taxpayers gave a $98 million grant to the Hispanic immigration assistance group United Neighborhood Organization to construct and operate new charter schools in Chicago. 80% of that money went to construct three schools – UNO Soccer Academy Elementary School ($25 million), UNO Galewood Elementary School ($22 million), and UNO Soccer Academy High School ($31 million).
According to the Sun Times report, more than 20% of that money ended up in the accounts of family members of UNO’s members, political allies and executives. Here are some of the examples cited by the publication:
- UNO Sr. Vice President Miguel d’Escoto’s brother’s company was paid $600,000 to be the “owner’s representative”.
- A second brother of d’Escoto saw his company receive a $4.4 million contract for construction work on one of the new schools.
- A portion of the grant money awarded to UNO went to a security firm contracted to guard the construction sites. That security firm is owned by the brothers of State Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago), one of the elected officials who voted to award the grant money in the first place.
- Two plumbing contracts were awarded to the sister of the political power broker Victor Reyes. Reyes is a registered lobbyist who was instrumental in getting the grant passed by the Illinois legislature.
- UNO also hired itself with the grant money, contracting its janitorial service to clean up the school before its grand opening for $31,000.
- Former Mayoral candidate Gery Chico’s law firm received over $36,000 as the zoning lawyer for UNO.
- $1.6 million went to Windy City Electric, a resident and backer of powerful Chicago Alderman Ed Burke. 5 UNO charter schools are concentrated in Burke’s southwest side 14th Ward.
Secret connections and law violations
The Chicago Sun Times investigation reveals the result of the flood of grant money to the Latino special interest group. ‘Charter schools are classified as public schools, though they are built and run by private operators outside many of the rules that govern the Chicago Public Schools and other public school systems,’ the publication writes, ‘The state money that UNO got is powering the organization’s rapid expansion and helping solidify its growing political might.’
Responding to accusations of possible fraud, UNO’s chief executive Juan Rangel dismissed the claims. “I understand the optics of it,” he said, “But if they cannot do the job, they’re not going to get the contract. All these guys have proven themselves.”
The state of Illinois disagrees. According to a state spokeswoman, Sandra M. Jones, the grant requires UNO to, “Immediately notify the department in writing of any actual or potential conflicts of interest, as well as any actions that create or which appear to create a conflict of interest.” Jones says that to date, the state has not received a single notification from UNO regarding its questionable expenditures and vendor choices.
State investigation of UNO
Jones confirms the state agency is investigating the charges. “We are currently reviewing the matter,” she reveals, “We take our oversight of taxpayer-funded programs very seriously. If it is found that a grantee has used funds incorrectly, we will take steps to address it.”
The part of the grant agreement that critics say is being violated by awarding millions of dollars in contracts to family members of UNO executives was reiterated by Jones. She quotes the language of the grant saying, “A conflict of interest exists if a grantee’s officers, directors, agents, employees and family members use their position for a purpose that is, or gives the appearance of, being motivated by a desire for a private gain, financial or nonfinancial, for themselves or others, particularly those with whom they have family, business or other ties.”
Representatives from the United Neighborhood Organization deny the charges and insist they have done nothing wrong. UNO CEO Juan Rangel claims the organization has, “gone above and beyond what we’re required to do.”
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