Four months after Chicago Public Schools’ Inspector General found significant fraud at the school inside the Cook County Jail and recommended firing its principal, CPS in a highly unusual and stinging reversal called the findings “unsubstantiated and unfounded.”
Principal Sharnette Sims was scheduled to return to work on Thursday with a clean record, CPS officials said. It is unclear whether Sims was ever punished by CPS, but Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart barred her from the jail following the public release of the inspector general’s report in September.
In a 47-page memo released Thursday, CPS’ law department attacked the inspector general’s findings of attendance and credit fraud at the York Alternative High School.
In response, CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler said he stands by his report, noting in a statement that his office conducted “an independent investigation for more than a year.”
Schuler called CPS’ “investigation of our investigation” unprecedented.
“In the past, the law department simply contacted the [Office of the Inspector General] with minor questions that might need clarification,” Schuler wrote. “They have never released a public report attacking an investigation by my office or, to my knowledge, any other CPS Inspector General.”
Schuler called the timing of CPS’ investigation “very peculiar,” saying CPS has had the report since June 30 and at any time “could have simply asked us for clarification, and we would have happily provided it.”
And Schuler said CPS’ critique of his findings do not get to the heart of the issue.
“Nothing I have seen in the report undermines the core findings in our investigation, which are that there was enrollment fraud and attendance fraud and course credit fraud going on,” he said.
CPS’ rebuke of Schuler came amid rising tensions between his office and the CPS administration. Schuler’s office has been investigating CPS General Counsel Ron Marmer for a possible ethics violation. Marmer is accused of supervising work by his former law firm while receiving a six-figure severance payout from that firm.
The Chicago Sun-Times also reported recently that Schuler brought in CPS CEO Forrest Claypool in for questioning and that a not-yet-released report from Schuler’s office accuses Claypool of trying to “whitewash” the ethics investigation.
CPS’ law department memo aims to discredit the IG’s findings in painstaking detail.
“Principal Sims is owed our thanks for her efforts at York, as well as a sincere apology for the blight on her reputation,” Claypool said in a statement.
The IG found more than 300 instances of students being marked present after they were released from jail and that students were given credits they hadn’t earned.
But the law department concluded that 60 percent of the data presented by the IG as “falsified was clearly not falsified.” CPS does not dispute that in some situations students were marked present after they had left the jail, but says that is largely explained by data challenges unique to running a school in a jail where the school can’t control or efficiently monitor a student’s comings and goings.
The memo, written by a deputy general counsel, said York’s data sometimes doesn’t match what is actually happening in the school and that can “lead to incorrect data conclusions.” It chalks up the inconsistencies to its particular data and logistics challenges and not to fraud.
CPS’ report also offers up scenarios where it was acceptable to make a student “present” when they were not in school. For example, the district’s software program bars students from getting a grade in a class when they are not present. Therefore, York clerks had to mark them present in order for them to get a final grade.
CPS accused the inspector general of doing a hasty analysis of data provided by the school district. Schuler said his office poured over the data for months and interviewed more people, and did more research, than the law department said in its critique.
The law department memo also took on the IG’s charge that some students didn’t attend the jail school long enough to earn academic credit. It says that Sims, on the advice of an expert on alternative education, instituted a new format where students took fewer classes for longer periods of time.
This, according to the CPS report, allows students to realistically earn credits.
CPS did note data entry issues at York and said it is working to improve and better coordinate with the jail.
Cook County Sheriff spokeswoman Cara Smith believes this close look at York will lead to a renewed effort by the sheriff's department to work with the Chicago Public Schools.
Smith said such collaboration is long overdue.
“Educating young men and women inside a jail is an extremely difficult task,” she said. “There are lots of distractions that make it tremendously difficult to be effective. We feel that Chicago Public Schools is committed to working with sheriff’s office to provide the best educational programming they can to this very vulnerable group of students.”