Given that Mayor Emanuel’s Board of Education said last week that it may throw even more money at charter schools, it’s a good time to remind you that charters haven’t always spent their public dollars wisely in the past. And that some charters have fiercely fought to keep their financial records a secret.
And that if it wasn’t for the efforts of Dan Mihalopoulos—a bulldog investigative reporter for the Sun-Times—at least one charter would still be dodging public scrutiny of its finances.
In fact, this particular charter network might still be doing the accountability dodge, were it not for Mihalopoulos’s intrepid efforts.
Basically, it’s time for me to update you on the saga I call Mihalopoulos v. United Neighborhood Organization, an epic legal ordeal that if made into a 60s noir would star the greatest old-school Greek/Jewish duo in Hollywood, John Cassavetes as Mihalopoulos and Peter Falk as his dogged sidekick, attorney Neil Rosenbaum. (More on him in a second.)
To remind you, charter schools are privately run but publicly funded, generally nonunion operations.
As such they’ve become useful instruments in the ongoing attempt by politicians like our very own Governor Rauner to obliterate various teachers’ unions.
C’mon. You don’t think Rauner supports charters because he cares about educating children, did you?
Over the years charters have generally claimed that their educational mission is so important they shouldn’t have to abide by the same set of rules as real public schools.
That includes not abiding by public record laws.
Which brings us to the Mihalopoulos case.
In February 2013, Mihalopoulos broke the story that UNO—which had the backing of Mayors Daley and Emanuel as well as Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan—had funneled millions of dollars in construction contracts to companies owned by brothers of its chief operating officer.
A no-no even for Chicago.
In the aftermath of that exposé, UNO’s longtime CEO Juan Rangel—who also happened to be the cochair of Emanuel’s 2011 mayoral campaign—was eventually forced to step down.
Emboldened by his initial investigation, Mihalopoulos filed a Freedom of Information Act request with UNO to test his hunch that this wasn’t the only instance of wasteful spending or nepotism.
He assumed—as any rational person would—that UNO would be subject to public records laws because it’s taking public money.
To stymie him, UNO employed a clever little dodge that charter schools throughout the country have used to keep the public from examining their books.
This is going to be complicated—as most dodges are—so stay with me, people.
For years, UNO operated as a community organization that served Latino neighborhoods. It created a separate organization to apply for charters to run schools—the UNO Charter School Network, or UCSN.
Then UCSN turned around and contracted UNO to manage the charter schools.
When Mihalopoulos came calling in February 2013, UCSN told him that UNO was the custodian of the financial records he was seeking.
But because UNO was a private not-for-profit, it argued, the organization wasn’t subject to state FOIA laws. Stated another way, Mihalopolous was told that the company that had the records wasn’t subject to FOIA. And the company that was subject to FOIA law didn’t have the records.
Even though they were basically the same company.
As dodges go, it was classic.
Mihalopoulos appealed to Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan’s office, which is what you do when recalcitrant public entities give you the middle finger on FOIA requests.
In July 2013, the attorney general ruled in Mihalopoulos’s favor.
UNO appealed to the Cook County Circuit Court, forcing the Sun-Times to bring in the heavy artillery—a lawyer named Neil Rosenbaum. (At this point I’m compelled to remind you that the Sun-Times and the Reader are owned by the same company—Wrapports.)
The case dragged on until February 2015, when Cook County judge David Atkins ordered UNO to turn over the records on the grounds that the company’s argument was full of shit.
Well, he didn’t put it that clearly. Instead, Atkins wrote: “The purported distinctions between UNO and UCSN are not as compelling as the similarities between the two entities.”
That just may be the legal understatement of the century.
UNO appealed Atkins’s decision to the appellate court. And so the matter dragged on for another year.
By this time, Rangel had made his Elvis-like departure from the UNO premises.
And at this point you really had to wonder: What was the point of UNO fighting the Atkins ruling? UNO’s new bosses were in a perfect position to blame any possible excesses on Rangel, much like Emanuel blames everything on Mayor Daley. (Though, unlike Emanuel, I’m sure UNO’s folks weren’t afraid to mention Rangel’s name.)
Plus, the company wasn’t just fighting off Mihalopoulos—UNO officials had both him and Rosenbaum gnawing at their ankles.
All kidding aside, if this situation proves anything, it’s that, sadly, to get access to public records you need patience, money, and a good lawyer.
I guess UNO got tired of fighting. Because before the appellate court had a chance to rule, UNO settled the case and agreed to turn over the records.
Not long thereafter, on March 26, the Sun-Times ran “UNO’s secret spending spree,” a front-page scoop in which Mihalopoulos revealed that, among other things, Rangel had flown on junkets all over the world and rung up some hefty tabs at fancy restaurants on the “taxpayers’ dime.”
Obviously, charter school operators can party like rock stars, so long as they pay their teachers lousy wages.
I’d say this story has a happy ending, but there’s one wrinkle: Yes, Mihalopoulos and Rosenbaum forced UNO to cough up the goodies. But other charter operators are still free to try the old management-company dodge should inquisitive citizens come looking for their financial records. Yes, these companies would probably lose, thanks to Judge Atkins’s order. But they could delay turning over information for so long that people not as diligent—or well lawyered—as Mihalopoulos might give up.
What’s really needed to fix this problem is a state law clearly stipulating that even subcontractors that manage charter schools are subject to FOIA laws.
I’d say we get my old pals state senator Heather Steans and state rep Christian Mitchell—two big charter boosters—to introduce the bill.
After all, if we, the taxpayers, are going to give our money to charter school operators, the least they can do is tell us how they spend it.
In the meantime, congratulations, Dan and Neil. It’s nice to know that once in a while the good guys actually win—even in Chicago. v