Once, the United Neighborhood Organization, or UNO, was one of the most powerful and politically well-connected organizations in town.
The group runs one of the largest charter school operations in the state. It has received millions of dollars in state funding. Its former leader, Juan Rangel, was pals with politicians across the city and state, including such figures as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ald. Ed Burke and House Speaker Mike Madigan. The group claims it serves more than 7,500 students with a daily attendance rate of 97 percent.
Now it seems little more than a scandal-ridden investigation factory.
The latest revelations come amid news the group is being audited by the IRS over $37 million in bonds issued in 2011 for UNO Charter School Network, which has 16 campuses across the city that receive a total of about $50 million a year in funding from the Chicago Public Schools.
The IRS move follows a series of other scandals that have plagued UNO. First, there were reports of the ongoing insider contracts, nepotistic hires, and political cronyism. Then, the group’s No. 2 executive resigned amid news he paid state grant money to companies owned by two of his brothers. The state twice halted funding as a result. Later, the SEC started poking around, concerned that UNO had been defrauding bond investors.
Now, the IRS wants to know whether “bonds issued in 2011 to finance construction and expansion of UCSN charter schools” were hinky or not.
Part of the problem with UNO is that its operated in the past as non-transparently as a private organization taking public money can be. For years, the charter school network was run by a combination of UNO, a parent organization, and UNO Charter School Network, which theoretically oversaw the schools.
In the wake of the many scandals the group has suffered, the board overseeing the schools recently voted to terminate its long-running management agreement with UNO, and UNO Charter School Network officials say they will manage the schools alone.
Yet, critics of the organization say the split doesn’t matter in the long run, as the lack of transparency and accountability remains. The Pilsen Alliance, a community group operating in Chicago’s Lower West Side, recently put out a press release calling on Attorney General Lisa Madigan to open a criminal investigation about the “fraudulent and clientelistic charges against UNO, its board directors and political supporters.”
UNO’s separation from its precious charter schools is but another indication of serious problems in the organization. Ald. Solis, UNO’s founder and god father has tried to separate himself from the organization, but those who know UNO are well aware of his power in the organization. Even though Rangel and other high officers of the organization have been pushed out to protect the overall project, Ald. Solis long term associate and friend Phil Mullins remains to be the Chief Strategy Officer at UNO. At the end of the day, it matters little whether UNO is one or two organizations if the same characters remain running the show.
More to the point, the group has refused to honor a series of FOIA requests and a subsequent lawsuit by the Chicago Sun-Times requesting records of UNO’s “payments to lobbyists, auditors, media spokespeople, and the services of the federal judge who reviewed its construction contracts.” To date, UNO has maintained that only records held by the UNO Charter School Network Inc. must be made public under the law, keeping proof of any potential political cronyism by the parent organization under wraps.
UNO’s ongoing troubles come amid a period of bad news for Chicago charter schools in general.
For example, Chicago’s public neighborhood elementary schools improved greatly in reading and slightly in math, outpacing average charter school growth last year, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of recently released testing data.
CPS recently scrapped plans for a South Side charter school operated by Concept Schools that was scheduled to open this year. The move follows a series of scandals Concept has undergone in recent months, including FBI raids earlier this year on 19 schools the group operates and news CPS Board president David Vitale would benefit financially if Concept operated out of the proposed South Side location.
Arguments about whether charter schools in Chicago are better choices for parents and students tend to focus on academic achievement. Yet, as private entities that require public tax dollars just to be in business, how an organization runs its operations and whether its accountable or not should matter just as much as if the company does a good job of educating children.
By that measure, it’s hard to make a case for UNO as anything other than a failed business that just can’t seem to stop creating scandals, one after the other.