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Inspector General finds questionable conduct in CPS

Parents who try to sneak their kids into Chicago’s selective schools through address fraud have been put on notice.

A new report by Chicago Public Schools inspector general, Nicholas Schuler, details several cases of admissions fraud investigated by his office over the last year. And his recommendations range from kicking the students out to firing the CPS staff who abetted it.

“I hope this sends a message that people need to follow the rules and the rules apply to everybody,” Schuler said. “And when fraud is discovered there is going to be responsibility for that and the result might be that their child might be disenrolled from the school.”

This year’s report, which went live Monday morning, includes the usual array of residency violations, kickback schemes, fake purchases and tuition fraud. But it also documents the desperate acts of parents trying to get their kids into selective schools, administrators trying to fudge their dropout rates and vendors trying to get the inside track on city contracts.

On Sunday night, CPS released a statement to WBEZ, saying "Chicago Public Schools is committed to working with the Office of the Inspector General to eliminate corruption, fraud and waste across the District.  The annual OIG report is a testament of our cooperation and demonstrates we do not tolerate any wrongdoing, and CPS has either addressed or is addressing all the issues in the report."

Although the report cannot name names, WBEZ has been able to fill in some identities through media reports, public documents and confirmations by sources. The purview of the OIG is mainly restricted to CPS employees and so does not represent all violations that occur in the system.

In 2011, the district replaced race with socio-economics status (by address) as a factor for admission to selective enrollment high schools. This year’s report is the first to investigate abuse of this factor by more than a dozen students at six selective enrollment high schools. Another six cases involved CPS employees who had falsified their addresses to appear less affluent and gain their children easier admission. Most of the children identified in the report have been kicked out of the schools, and most of the CPS employees have faced or will face dismissals.

Monday, CPS said it would consider audits of selective enrollment students in the future.

The report further detailed $657,000 in back tuition owed by suburban residents who were illegally sending their kids to CPS schools.

Another prominent case in this year’s document involves former Gwendolyn Brooks Preparatory High School principal Dushon Brown. According to the report, on the eve of the 2010-11 school year, she asked a CPS administrator to allow a student who’d neither applied for nor taken the selective enrollment exam, to enroll in her school. When the administrator refused, Brown, reportedly “phoned a state legislator” who phoned the administrator again asking for an exception. The attempts were not successful. The OIG recommended discipline for the principal in its 2012 report.

In its 2013 report, the OIG detailed a case in which Principal Brown and a Gwendolyn Brooks school operations manager found a bank account opened by the parent booster club of the building’s previous occupant, a Catholic school. The report says a “local bank inexplicably allowed” Brown and the operations manager to take control of the $186,235 of funds and spend $116,974, but never included it in the “school’s internal accounts ledger.” The OIG recommended discipline for the principal, which was still pending at the time of the last report. In today’s report the OIG reports that Brown was terminated in 2014 and classified as a “Do Not Hire.”

The report follows up on another 2012 case in which the OIG found a former chief area officer took nearly $17,000 in travel and gifts (including a $10,000 scholarship) from textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In exchange, according to the report, the CPS officer steered the publisher to nearly $300,000 in business “through no-bid, sole source deals.”

Last July the CPS Board entered into a settlement with the publisher requiring it to pay a $250,000 fine and to fund an independent monitor to oversee these issues. In addition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had to train its employees to comply with board ethics policies.

Another outstanding ethics issue tackled in this year’s report involves a dispute between two of the nation’s largest food service providers, who were competing for the 2013 school food contract, valued at nearly $100 million a year. Food giant Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality charged that CPS school food chief (and former Aramark manager) Leslie Fowler showed favoritism to her former employer in the contract bidding process. The district asked the OIG to rule on the issue at the time, and it concluded that Fowler’s actions “did not violate applicable ethics policies.”

In its new report, however, the OIG says Fowler “engaged in questionable conduct throughout the award process.” This included dining twice with the president of Aramark during the process and telling fellow bid committee members that her boss did not want Chartwells to win the contract. The report further says that Fowler told “staff members that she did not need to review (Aramark’s bid) because she had written proposals for” the company herself and Aramark knew what she wanted.  

In the process of the Fowler investigation, “the OIG also learned that the administrator prodded subordinates to participate in a party game that made people feel uncomfortable.”

Attempts to reach Fowler for comment through CPS were unsuccessful.

In the wake of the case, the OIG has recommended that CPS review the investigation to see “if any further action regarding the administrator is warranted.” It also recommended that the district “review its RFP [contract bidding] policy and ensure adequate training for those involved in the process.”

Aramark also received one of the nation’s largest school custodial contracts last year from CPS when the district privatized its cleaning crews. The Aramark takeover of the program has been met with  district-wide complaints of dirty classrooms, theft, damaged materials and bad communication.  

Another novel case in this year’s report investigated a CPS high school that classified 296 students  who dropped out (since 2009) as “transfers,” allegedly in order to improve its dropout numbers. The school said that the students were headed for GED programs, but Illinois law makes it clear that these students are to be counted as dropouts. Another 121 students at the school were classified as transfers, but the OIG says less than 5 percent of the cases was backed up with “adequate written proof.” 

In another case, the OIG says a high school principal was sending an average of 55 students a day to a kind of first period detention if they were more than 15 minutes tardy. The practice was done to discourage tardiness but the OIG said it occurred more than 10,000 times (recorded as “school function”) in the 2012-13 school year, resulting in hundreds of thousands of missed instruction minutes. Although principals have leeway to be creative with attendance programs the OIG recommended CPS implement more consistent practices.

Other cases, among the OIG’s 280 this year, dealt with full time CPS teachers who were also employed as full time Chicago Police Department officers; a phony billing scheme at Michele Clark High School that resulted in $870,000 in fraud and principals who fraudulently enrolled their family members as students for a few key weeks to boost attendance numbers.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

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