Embattled UNO charter school leader steps aside, stops short of resigning

UNO announces it is shaking up its boards of directors and will adopt tougher oversight and procurement measures amid scandal.

May 28, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Construction has halted on UNO’s Soccer Academy High School. The state has suspended funding to UNO as it investigates other spending from a $98 million grant. UNO announced Tuesday it is turning over construction of the school to a separate nonprofit. It is also shaking up its two boards.

The leader of one of Chicago’s largest charter school networks issued a mea culpa Tuesday and announced he is stepping away from some decision-making positions, but stopped short of resigning his $250,000-a-year position.  

Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, commonly known as UNO, stood in the multipurpose room of a new UNO charter school on the Southwest Side and said this:

“I have failed. Failed to exercise proper oversight. Failed to hold UNO to the highest operational standards. Failed to manage UNO in a way that kept pace with its growth, and failed to ensure proper checks and balances in our procurement process. For these failures, I am sorry, and I take full responsibility.”

With UNO under state investigation for giving construction contracts to insiders, Rangel announced he is stepping down from the board of the charter school network and also from the board of UNO, the community organization.

But saying he still has much to contribute, Rangel will remain CEO of UNO, which includes the day-to-day management of the schools. He insisted that an overhauled board with new, independent members will keep him accountable. UNO named Martin Cabrera, Jr., founder and CEO of Cabrera Capital Markets, as the new chairman of the community organization’s board. It did not name anyone to head its charter school network board. Both boards will have UNO charter school parents on them.

Rangel says UNO will stick to tougher ethics and procurement rules, and the new board will have expanded oversight. He said UNO will implement every recommendation made by a retired federal judge the group hired to review its governance and ethics policies.

Rangel has led the UNO charter school network since its first school opened 15 years ago. He said checks and balances didn’t keep pace with UNO’s rapid expansion. The charter network now educates 6,500 CPS students at 13 campuses and is slated to open two additional schools this fall. Rangel said the group had gone from a $2 million-a-year operation to one with a $100 million budget. Most of the group’s income comes from Chicago Public Schools’ payments to UNO to educate students in its schools.

Rangel is also resigning from the city’s Public Building Commission, which oversees public construction projects, including schools. Rangel was named to the commission by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after he won election.

Both Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley have been big supporters of UNO charter schools. Rangel co-chaired Emanuel’s mayoral election campaign.

Rangel spoke in a multipurpose room at the recently constructed UNO Soccer Academy Elementary charter school. The Chicago Sun-Times first reported that the school’s floor-to-ceiling windows and sleek metal exterior were put in thanks to a $4.4 million contract given to the brother of an UNO director at the time, Miguel d’Escoto. Another brother had a contract to manage construction.

“The questions that have been raised are legitimate and they are reasonable,” Rangel told reporters before making his apology. “For UNO to get into business relationships with family members is simply not appropriate. It smacks of nepotism. Such practices have no place at an organization like UNO.”

Across from the elementary school, UNO’s Soccer Academy High School sits half finished, with construction halted. The state froze UNO’s’ grant money as it investigates spending.

Rangel said today UNO is immediately relinquishing control over construction of the school and will hire the nonprofit Illinois Facilities Fund to complete the project.  Rangel says unless the state money is flowing again by June 1,  UNO won’t be able to open the school in the fall. It says 600 students in grades 6-9 are already enrolled.

Outside, parent Margarita Portales looked over at the unfinished high school her son is supposed to attend in August.

“I hope it’s finished soon, honestly, because we need this school,” said Portales in Spanish. Her older daughter travels to Lane Tech on the North Side every day. “We have to travel far to get to high school. It’s not fair. We need schools nearby that are strong academically so our children can continue and get to college.”

A spokeswoman from Illinois’ Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity says the state is reviewing the governance shake-ups announced by UNO.

New UNO (community organization) board members and their affiliations:

  • Martin Cabrera, Jr. (chairman), Founder and CEO, Cabrera Capital Markets
  • Joseph de Lopez, former Winnetka police superintendent and VP of Voorhees Associates
  • Pastor Freddy Santiago, Iglesia Rebano Church
  • Prof. Peter Skerry, Boston College and Brookings Institution
  • Rodolfo Benitez, UNO charter school parent
  • Mariana Chavez, UNO charter school parent

New UNO Charter School Network board members and their affiliations:

  • Vincent Allocco, El Valor
  • Fr. Chris Devron, Christ the King school
  • Richard Rodriguez, Lend Lease and former CTA president
  • Gilbert Munoz, Chicago Fire
  • Silverio Nodal, UNO charter school parent
  • Jenni Jimenez, UNO charter school parent

Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation