The outgoing head of Chicago’s largest and top-performing charter school network is being investigated following allegations of inappropriate behavior toward young female alumnae, WBEZ has learned.
In a statement, Mike Milkie acknowledged he “acted inappropriately toward adult women affiliated with Noble.” He said that is why he announced his retirement last week as CEO of Noble Network of Charter Schools.
“This is why I am rightly no longer CEO,” Milkie said. “ I am very sorry and apologize first to those impacted by my inappropriate interactions. I also apologize to my family and to my friends. I let you down. Finally, I apologize to the students, alumni, families, and supporters of Noble. I let you down, too.”
Noble runs 17 charter high schools and one middle school that serve more than 12,000 students. Many Noble campuses are high performing and viewed as models of success. The charter network is also a darling of the city’s rich and powerful, with campuses bearing such names as Rauner, Pritzker and Chicago Bulls.
On Tuesday, Noble Board President Allan Muchin confirmed to WBEZ that the board was investigating Milkie, 57. The board has hired an outside law firm to conduct the investigation of Milkie.
Muchin said the board so far does not think the interactions with the alumni “were serious.”
The board was notified after two top Noble leaders, then-president and now CEO Constance Jones, and Head of Schools Ellen Metz, confronted Milkie in October. They cited “a pattern of inappropriate behavior across several incidents, including hand holding and slow dancing with an alumna,” according to a statement released by the charter network. The two leaders said they lacked confidence in Milkie’s leadership.
When faced with this information, Milkie chose to retire, the statement said.
“At no point did Noble leadership have knowledge of allegations that required mandated reporting, nor that were criminal in nature,” Noble said in the statement. Noble also said the outside law firm will review the charter network’s reporting processes for allegations of inappropriate behavior.
‘I was crying hysterically’
WBEZ interviewed one alumna who said Milkie used his powerful position several years ago to put her in a terrible situation. She was in her early 20s, and just out of college, when she was asked to chaperone a college trip Milkie was taking with a handful of current Noble students. After having dinner with students, he took her into the college town and they went to a bar.
She said he pushed her to drink, despite several refusals. She said she then left to go back to the hotel and, on the way back, he held her hand.
“At that point, I felt very uncomfortable,” said the Noble graduate, who WBEZ is not naming to protect her privacy. “I pulled away.”
At the hotel, he told her he wanted to show her the lake, which the hotel overlooked. She said he then picked her up and put her over the ledge of a balcony. She said she became “very frightened and screamed.”
She was so afraid of Milkie that she barricaded herself in her room and called her boyfriend to pick her up.
“I was crying hysterically because I didn’t know what had just happened,” she said. “[I was] really upset and scared. I knew that there were some lines that were crossed and some power dynamics that were pushed, and I knew I needed to get out of there immediately.”
The young woman had plans to become a teacher, working under Milkie at one of the Noble campuses.
Once back in Chicago, she said Milkie called and texted her incessantly until she finally answered and told him to stop.
The Noble graduate said she shared her harrowing story with the Noble staffer who hired her to chaperone the college visit. She doesn’t know what, if anything, came of her complaint.
A senior Noble staff member told WBEZ about allegations against Milkie as well. When this staffer was principal at a Noble campus, female students told a teacher Milkie made them feel uncomfortable, she said. The students said Milkie paid girls more attention than boys and took a personal interest in their lives. The principal looked into the allegations and concluded they didn’t rise to a level that further action was required. This Noble staffer also requested anonymity by WBEZ.
A third woman connected to Noble — another recent graduate — described to WBEZ efforts by Milkie to forge a relationship with her when she was a student. He never crossed a line, the 2015 graduate said, but his repeated efforts to seek her out at lunchtime, to take her on college trips, to babysit his children, made her feel targeted and uncomfortable.
Muchin said it was important for the board to take action.
“When you have someone running schools, you have to take these situations seriously,” he said.
Muchin did not want to discuss what steps the board may take if the investigation turns up serious wrongdoing.
Chicago Public Schools budgeted more than $157 million for Noble charter schools this year. Milkie makes $262,000, according to the organization’s 2017 tax return. He’s slated to retire at the end of the year.
WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton contributed to this story.