Chicago School Board presidents give away education monies to charities

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Two former Chicago School Board presidents reportedly gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities in which they or family members were involved, with no oversight or approval by fellow board members.

The two executives were Rufus Williams, who served from 2006 through 2009, and Michael Scott, who served from 2001 through 2006, and again beginning in Feb. 2009 until he committed suicide in November of that year.

Last month, a report issued by the Chicago Public Schools inspector general said the two former board presidents misspent over $800,000 on improper expenditures, including charitable donations, lavish restaurants and hotels, parties, office artwork and tickets to football games.

The latest information on the magnitude of the charitable donations was reported in Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune, in which it disclosed donations made by the two men since 2005. The five-year tally amounted to more than $525,000.

Some of the findings were:

  • A donation of $53,400 to the Chicago Urban League, for seats at two fellowship dinners, a conference registration and to sponsor youth programs at CPS. At the time, Scott sat on the board of the CUL.
  • Other organizations at which Scott sat on boards and gave money were $10,000 to the Better Boys Foundation and $14,500 to the Sinai Community Institute.
  • Scott also gave $10,000 to Mujeres Latinas En Accion, a charity for Hispanic women in Chicago where Scott’s wife, Diana Palomar Scott, was a board member.
  • Another $77,500 was given by Scott to the Holy Starlight Missionary Baptist Church during a three year period for a new church boiler and summer youth programs.
  • The school board donated at least $80,000 to sponsor an African-American Women’s Expo, for seats at fundraising dinners for the Anti-Defamation League and Rainbow/Push Coalition and for various community fairs.
  • A $10,000 contribution was made to an unspecified West Side political organization.
  • More than $140,000 was funneled to the CPS’s own charity, Children First Fund.

None of the donations required board approval since the threshold had been set for donations only exceeding $25,000. The monies were paid out of private accounts, although they contained public funds, that were under the control of the board presidents.

After beginning his second term in 2009, Scott convinced the board to change the rules on donations and gifts, so that there was virtually no oversight. After that, his unchecked spending accelerated.

Following his death, the board changed the threshold amount for which donations needed to be approved, from $25,000 to $1,000.

“Any dollars that Chicago Public Schools invests should be for services provided directly, not indirectly, to Chicago kids, which are measurable and fully transparent,” said Timothy Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. “Given the scarcity of resources in the Chicago Public Schools system, (gifts) should be tied to particular deliverables and achieving certain outcomes.”

“They shouldn’t be a good will gesture to spread taxpayer dollars that may or may not do important things for kids.”

Information from: Chicago Tribune

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More trouble at Philadelphia School District, exec accused of bid-rigging

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The Philadelphia School District’s chief procurement officer, John J. Byars, has been accused of bid-rigging by a lawyer representing the firm that lost out on a lucrative contract to maintain the district’s Board Street headquarters, and the PHA’s senior management apparently agrees.

Byars was accused of steering a multimillion dollar management contract to U.S. Facilities, Inc. a subsidiary of a minority-owned company run by Willie F. Johnson, a former state and city official, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Former City Solicitor, Carl E. Singley, who represents the firm currently handling the contract, Elliot-Lewis Corp., said that Byars interfered with the competitive bidding process, causing the contract to be awarded to U. S Facilities, Inc. The contract is valued at $2.4 million each year and covers operations, maintenance, and food service at the facility.

Singley’s claims were backed up in a memo written by Jeffrey D. Cardwell, the PSD’s senior vice president for facilities management. The memo called the process “biased” and read in part “the Procurement Office made comments about who they should select.” It said that the intent was clear that U.S. Facilities was the favored vendor.

The school district’s general counsel issued a statement in response to information requests by The Inquirer, saying that PHA lawyers had reviewed the bidding process and “determined that there were anomalies present. Based upon this information and as part of our continued commitment to fairness and transparency in our contracting and procurement efforts, we decided to . . . start the process over.”

A source knowledgeable with the parties said that prior to the bidding process for the contract, Byars made it known that “it was his mission to make sure that Elliott-Lewis did not get the contract. That was a firm statement from him on numerous occasions.”

When Elliot-Lewis made their presentation, Byars was present, which was not typical for such a meeting. The source said that Byars asked “some mean-spirited questions that Elliot-Lewis couldn’t answer. That’s the telltale sign. He was meddling.”

The source went on to say that Byars was making “smart-ass, offhand remarks for the purpose of undermining the process, …and shuffling through (PowerPoint) slides on paper, muttering in an audible voice, ‘Well, this doesn’t make any sense.’ He was definitely there to disrupt things.”

Based on the chain of events, Cardwell suggested that the School Reform Commission, which oversees the district, extend the Elliot-Lewis contract through June, and start over with the bidding process.

The parent company of U.S. Facilities, PRWT Services, Inc. is a politically connected operation that was formed in 1988 by Johnson, a former regional commissioner of the State Office of Social Service. A lobbyist currently under contract with the PSD, Melonease Shaw, was an executive at PRWT for 15 years.

On Dec. 13, Byars and five other PSD executives were suspended over a controversial $7.5 million contract involving the installation of surveillance cameras at 19 of the district’s high schools. The district’s superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman abruptly fired a contractor that had already started services on the project, and awarded it to a little-known minority firm that was not on the state-approved list to handle the work.

The matter is currently under investigation by the state attorney general’s office and the Pa. Department of Education.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Illinois school superintendents get rich on pension benefits by fleeing state

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Retired school superintendents are making a mad dash for the border, that is, the state border, in order to effectively double up on their annual compensation.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in Illinois, and likely other states, according to an investigative report in the Chicago Tribune. In fact, while educators are moving out of state to get around pension payment rules, superintendents from other states are moving into Illinois, presumably to fill in for the jobs left by those taking advantage of the loophole.

Illinois state laws are in place to prevent its public school superintendents from retiring and triggering outsized pensions, and then taking another superintendent job to collect two checks from the state. Unfortunately, when politicians crafted the law, they forgot to limit retirees’ pensions if a superintendant took a job across state lines.

In many cases, those moving into Illinois are also retirees, hiding from their state while cashing pension checks and continuing to earn large salaries.

Even though the state’s pension system is in serious financial straits, there’s nothing much that can be done under existing rules, since it’s all legal.

“We have allowed a system to develop that is grossly underfunded and that has very generous benefits,” said Laurence Msall, president of Chicago’s Civic Federation, a nonprofit government research organization. “To draw a pension from the state … and then immediately go get another job as a superintendent or in another teaching capacity — they’re really not retiring.”

Some examples found by Tribune investigators include:

  • Retired superintendent of New Trier Township High School District Hank Bangser, collects a $261,681 state pension, while working as a school superintendent in Southern California’s Ojai Unified School District making $170,000. His total annual compensation: $431,681.
  • Retired Wheaton Superintendent Gary Catalani receives a $237,195 Illinois state pension while earning another $195,000 from the Scottsdale, Arizona school district. His total annual compensation: $432,195.
  • Retired South Cook superintendent Eric King receives a $166,608 Illinois state pension and earns another $168,343 salary as the superintendent of the Muncie, Indiana school district, for a total of $334,951.
  • Retired East Maine Superintendent Kathleen Williams receives a $177,711 Illinois state pension, and earns another $156,000 in Wausau, Wisconsin. Her total compensation: $333,711.
  • Retired Superintendent Rebecca van der Bogert collects a $169,050 Illinois state pension, another $21,974 from Massachusetts, and currently works in Florida as the head of the Palm Beach Day Academy.
  • Retired superintendent of the Oak Park and River Forest Districts Attila Weniger, receives an Illinois state pension of $180,302 while earning another $149,500 as the superintendent of the Stevens Point Area Public Schools District in Wisconsin, for a total of $329,802.

The is no system in place that monitors how many retired school superintendents are crossing state lines to work while they are “retired,” and there is no system in the state that checks to make sure that the superintendents are not working another job in Illinois.

Tribune reporters tracked down retired superintendents through Internet searches, newspaper articles and public records, since state records do not track the whereabouts or employment of the retirees.

However, data at the Illinois State Board of Education does show dozens of superintendents moving into its system with 20 or more years of employment at out-of-state districts, but does not show how many are receiving pensions.

All of the superintendents who were contacted by the Tribune defended their employment while collecting retirement benefits, and some were angry that the issue was being raised.

“Somebody who retires can go to another state and work. To me, that is the story, and that’s what I’ve done,” Weninger said.

“I worked uninterrupted for 36 years and obviously made all the (retirement) contributions, as did all of my colleagues,” Bangser, 61, said. “The point is that, I think like anything else, you operate under the rules, restrictions and guidelines of whatever is in place at the time.”

Others see it differently.

One critic, Jeremy Gold, a New York-based actuary and pension expert, called earning multiple government incomes “indicative of sloppy governance and a cavalier attitude by those ‘public servants’ who exploit these loopholes selfishly.”

Gold said “Illinois is the poster child for pension abuses. One of my colleagues calls this child because or children must pay for fiscal irresponsibility.”

“We have allowed a system to develop that is grossly underfunded and that has very generous benefits,” said Laurence Msall, president of Chicago’s Civic Federation, a nonprofit government research organization. “To draw a pension from the state … and then immediately go get another job as a superintendent or in another teaching capacity — they’re really not retiring.”

Another issue that arises when school superintendents play musical chairs, by retiring for the pension and then taking a position elsewhere, is that they deprive employment opportunities for younger administrators moving up in the system, potentially adding to unemployment.

The Chicago Tribune

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New report finds most U.S. school children performing poorly in science

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A periodic report released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that U.S. school children are lagging in proficiency in the critical area of the sciences. Only 1 or 2 percent of students at each grade level scored at the “advanced” level, while a substantial number failed to place at the most basic level.

The test was administered to a sample of 150,000 each of fourth and eighth grade students, as well as 11,000 12th graders. The exam is given every four years and scores students’ knowledge of space, Earth, physical and life sciences.

In the fourth grade, 28 percent of students tested below the basic level of knowledge. By the eighth grade, that figure rose to 37 percent, and by the 12th grade, 47 percent failed to achieve the most basic level of proficiency.

“The results released today show that our nation’s students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain America’s role as an international leader in the sciences,” said Arne Duncan, the US secretary of Education, in a statement. “When only 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers.”

The test was revised substantially since it was last administered and takes into account recent scientific advances, focusing more on measuring higher-level scientific thinking. In addition to multiple choice questions, for the first time, the exam included open-ended questions requiring a written response, to evaluate a student’s ability to apply their science knowledge.

The results showed large gaps between races, income levels, and public vs. private school students.

For example, on a 300 point scale, white students out-tested black students by 36 points, and Hispanic students by 32 points. Private school students did better than public school students by 14 points. Boys also outperformed girls by 2 points overall.

Most of the higher scoring states were all located in the northern portion of the country. At the fourth grade level, the top scoring states were New Hampshire, North Dakota, Kentucky and Virginia, while the lowest scoring states were Mississippi and California.

Alan Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and a former director of the New York Hall of Science, said that those evaluating the scores should not jump to conclusions about the cause of the poor results. He suggested that one factor could be an unintended consequence of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which led schools to increase their focus on reading and math.

For the report, visit: www.nationsreportcard.gov

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Detroit School Board member “bugged” confidential legal settlement meeting

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As though Detroit’s public school system doesn’t have enough issues to deal with, apparently at least one of its school board members is trying to secretly sabotage its efforts to reach a legal settlement with embattled Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb.

In happier times: Detroit School Board President Anthony Adams and Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb.

The espionage was detailed in a memo sent by school board president Anthony Adams to all the board members, saying that during a “closed door” meeting to confidentially discuss a settlement, at least one board member had their cell phone turned on to send the 2-hour discussion to “outside community participants.”

The memo said in part “Such conduct is not to be tolerated. We need to do things in private.  To intrude on our process that way shows a tremendous level of disrespect.” The memo did not contain the name of the offending board member.

One board member, Dr. Carla Scott said “If it’s true, they should be sanctioned. I have no idea why someone would do something so inappropriate, so juvenile and unprofessional. I hope it’s not true,” she said.

The settlement with Bobb follows a ruling in December by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Baxter, in which she said that Bobb overstepped his authority by making academic decisions that should have been made by the school board. The decision came as the result of a year-long civil lawsuit brought by the school board against Bobb.

Bobb was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in March 2009 to deal with the district’s ongoing financial crisis. This year, the school system is expected to have a budget deficit of over $325 million.

Bobb was given a one-year contract that was extended through March 2011.

The Detroit News

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Atlanta Public Schools in danger of losing accreditation

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An educational standards agency said Tuesday it has placed Atlanta Public Schools on probation and given the system nine months to make improvements or risk losing accreditation for its high schools. Losing that standing could diminish grant money and make it harder for graduates to get into college.

The system’s board has failed to meet standards on governance and leadership set by accrediting agency AdvancED, said its president and CEO Mark Elgart.

“The reason for probation is the issues are serious,” Elgart said at a news conference in Alpharetta, where the agency has a corporate office. “They not only affect the effective governance of the board but they affect the future direction of the school system and its ability to provide a quality education for all students.”

Board Chairman Khaatim Sherrer El said the district is taking the report very seriously and will address all of the concerns in a transparent manner.

“I want to make this absolutely clear, retention of our accreditation is a top priority for this board and administration because the academic standing and reputation of the district is at stake,” he said.

Losing accreditation could put the 50,000-student district in danger of losing private grants and could keep students from gaining admission and winning scholarships at some colleges.

The agency’s move is relatively rare. Of the roughly 5,000 districts nationwide that AdvancED has accredited, only eight are currently on probation, said spokeswoman Jennifer Oliver.

Schools remain accredited during the probation, which doesn’t apply to elementary and middle schools because they are outside the agency’s purview. The system has nine months to make progress toward better-governance requirements outlined by the agency.

Complaints that the school board wasn’t governing effectively prompted AdvancED to make an onsite visit in December and review school system documents.

The board had become divided after the launch of an investigation of allegations of cheating on standardized tests. After months of bickering, four members filed a lawsuit in October alleging that the board’s chairman and vice chairwoman were improperly elected to the leadership positions. They had to give up the positions as part of a settlement, though El became chairman again in a subsequent vote.

To keep its accreditation, the board must develop a long-term education strategy, hire an impartial mediator to resolve board disputes and put in place a transparent process for selecting a new superintendent, among other requirements. The system will have to convince Elgart’s group that it’s making “authentic progress” on those requirements by the end of September, he said.

The Associated Press

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Philly schools plan to spend more on lobbyists to “educate” lawmakers

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The Philadelphia School District, facing down a $434 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, is in the process of soliciting lobbyists that can explain to state lawmakers, “its innovative reform programs and impressive successes.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday that the district, led by embattled Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, sent out a request for proposals saying it’s “seeking an agency, individual, or organization to support the district’s growing governmental relations operation in Harrisburg . . . and Washington, D.C.”

The district is currently contracting with the consulting firm Maven, Inc. run by Melonease Shaw, to lobby state legislators. The Maven contract started in 2009 and runs through Feb.28. Under the current arrangement, the district may be obligated for up to $234,000 for lobbying work.

The district relies on about 55 percent of its annual $3.2 billion dollar budget from the state. The district’s proposal letter said that the prospective lobbying firm will be responsible for arranging meetings in Harrisburg and Washington, planning events and providing interested parties with updates.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi criticized the proposal as misguided, saying “Those funds would be better used to improve educational performance. The city has a large delegation and a mayor, who can effectively make the case for the city’s schools.”

“This shows a fundamental lack of connection with reality,” he added, “considering the financial predicament that the School District finds itself in.”

The district will likely have a more difficult time explaining its problems at the state level, since a shift in power has changed the political environment in Harrisburg. The current lobbyist, Shaw, was closely connected to Dwight Evans, a Democrat in charge of the House Appropriations Committee until Nov. 16, when his fellow Democrats ousted him.

Newly-elected governor Tom Corbett is a Republican, and for the first time in nearly a decade, both House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans. Securing additional funds from the state will be far more difficult, as lawmakers are looking to solve their own budget deficit problems, said to be in the $4 billion to $5 billion.

The head of the House Education Committee, Rep. Paul Clymer said “This is not the time to invest a very large outlay of School District funds to tell many of us what we already know. In this time of fiscal restraint, that money should be used to educate the children.”

One lawmaker critical of Ackerman lately, Rep. Michael P. McGeehan, said he was flabbergasted by the news of the new lobbyist search. “This administration under Arlene Ackerman has exactly zero credibility in Harrisburg,” the Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia said. “The way they’ve handled the South Philadelphia High School crisis, the no-bid contracts, and the suspension of six good School District employees, who may be whistle-blowers, the legislature has serious questions about the conduct of this administration. . . . This is throwing good money after bad.”

Ackerman has been under close scrutiny since November when the Inquirer ran a series of stories detailing how she fired a company that had just started a $7.5 million no-bid emergency contract to place surveillance cameras in area high schools, and abruptly awarded it to a little-known company on the basis that it was a minority operation.

She later suspended six district employees, suspected of leaking information to the media about her controversial handling of the contract.

Critics say that Ackerman rushed to install the expensive surveillance systems in 19 area high schools after learning a state agency was about to release a highly-critical report saying the schools were dangerous. School district sources said that Ackerman wanted to install the cameras on an emergency basis to show that the district was on top of the situation, hoping to blunt adverse publicity against her and her staff.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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