UNO Galewood Charter School in Belmont Cragin
UNO Galewood Charter School in Belmont Cragin Credit: Jessica Koscielniak/Sun-Times Media

Mayor Rahm Emanuel keeps telling us that Chicago’s school system is too broke to adequately fund the schools it already has, but that hasn’t stopped him from gearing up to open as many as 21 new charter schools in the next two years.

The mayor likes to say that he’s all about improving the choices available to parents. But before he hands the charters another nickel of our tax dollars, allow me to make a humble suggestion: How about making them disclose how they spend the money we give them, so that parents and other citizens can make even better choices?

This suggestion comes to mind thanks to the ongoing litigation pitting Dan Mihalopoulos, ace investigative reporter for the Sun-Times, versus the United Neighborhood Organization, a charter school empire with 16 schools.

Folks, this is a championship bout. Mihalopoulos’s determination to force UNO to reveal how it’s spent tens of millions of public dollars is matched only by UNO’s determination to keep that information secret.

I only wish they were teaching the details of this fight in high school civics classes—charters included—so that the leaders of tomorrow could learn how Chicago really works.

This is what’s going on. Former CEO Juan Rangel built UNO’s charter machine by cultivating mutually beneficial alliances with some of the state’s most powerful politicians, including Mayors Daley and Emanuel.

In 2009, Governor Pat Quinn gave UNO a $98 million grant to build more schools. And Rangel was riding high, giddily taunting anyone—aldermen, union activists, even lowly Reader writers—who dared to criticize him.

And then in February, Mihalopoulos broke the news that UNO had funneled millions of dollars in contracts to construction companies owned by the brothers of Miguel d’Escoto, then its chief operating officer.

That’s a no-no, even in Chicago, where our politics have advanced enough that we’re at least supposed to pretend that clout and nepotism don’t exist.

As Charlton Heston might put it, I’ll give you that public information when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

In the ensuing furor, d’Escoto stepped down and Rangel apologized repeatedly before he too finally resigned earlier this month. UNO also hired ASGK Public Strategies—David Axelrod‘s former firm—to handle the spin. And it brought in retired federal judge Wayne Andersen to investigate how it was that the brothers of the COO got the contracts.

Short answer: UNO gave it to them!

UNO also promised to be transparent in all future dealings.

But the organization apparently went back on those words almost as soon as the initial brouhaha faded. At the very least, in the last ten months UNO has resisted turning over contracts and other documents that Mihalopoulos asked for in several Freedom of Information Act requests.

Here’s UNO’s explanation—but get ready, because it’s a complicated one.

UNO created UNO Charter School Network, or UCSN. The Board of Education then awarded UCSN the charter to operate its schools. UCSN in turn contracts with UNO to manage those schools.

Are you following me? I hope so—because I’m getting a headache just trying to explain this stuff.

UCSN contends that UNO is the custodian of the information Mihalopoulos is seeking. And UNO contends that since it doesn’t technically hold the charter, it remains a private nonprofit that isn’t subject to the FOIA.

So sorry, Dan—you’re out of luck.

Undeterred, Mihalopoulos appealed, making the rather obvious point that UNO and UCSN are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. After all, UNO created UCSN, the two share the same corporate office and the same governing boards, and Rangel ran—or used to run—both of them.

In other words, stop dicking around and turn this shit over! Though Mihalopoulos said it a little more gracefully than that.

The dispute went to the public access counselor, an office under the Illinois attorney general that oversees FOIA requests.

That’s Attorney General Lisa Madigan, daughter of Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan, who could probably force UNO to turn over the info with one phone call, since he’s one of the politicians whose support helped UNO secure the public money in the first place.

But I digress.

On July 3 the public access counselor ruled in favor of Mihalopoulos. UNO and UCSN are “inextricably intertwined” and “operate as the same entity,” the opinion stated. As a result, any records that UNO has must also be in the possession of UCSN.

Just like Dan said!

In any event, the public access counselor gave UNO 35 days to turn over the documentation or file an appeal.

Guess what? UNO took every single one of those 35 days and then appealed the ruling to the circuit court.

Or, as Charlton Heston might put it, I’ll give you that public information when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Mihalopoulos and the Sun-Times responded by filing a lawsuit demanding that UNO abide by the public access counselor’s ruling.

“Fearful of negative publicity and possibly loss of funding, [UNO has] intentionally violated the FOIA in a self-serving manner designed to avoid and or delay the public release of additional evidence of wrongdoing,” the lawsuit charges.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that the Reader and the Sun-Times are owned by the same outfit. So you might say that the money the Sun-Times pays in legal fees is coming out of my Christmas bonus. Not that I would have considered spending it any other way.

On the other hand, UNO is publicly funded, so I’m paying for both sides in this fight. At least Mihalopoulos has a good reason for engaging in it.

By the way, the list of information that Mihalopoulos is seeking includes how much UNO has spent paying Judge Andersen and Axelrod’s old firm, plus credit card receipts for expenses Rangel rang up on several junkets.

I’ve got to give UNO credit for this—its managers crafted a pretty clever FOIA dodge. UNO is a public operation when that’s to its benefit—such as when there’s public money for the taking. But it isn’t a public entity when that would require disclosing how it spends that same money.

If UNO wins its lawsuit, we can say good-bye to any pretense of accountability for charter schools. Not that there’s a whole lot to begin with.

At this point I must appeal to Mayor Emanuel, who claims he runs the most transparent administration in the history of Chicago.

Anytime you want to stop this charade by making the charters abide by the same rules as regular public schools, be my guest.