The lessons of UNOgate—don't let Mihalopoulos catch you! | Bleader

The lessons of UNOgate—don't let Mihalopoulos catch you!

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CEO Juan Rangel during a news conference at UNO Soccer Academy
At the risk of sounding like and out-and-out sadist, I must admit to getting just a wee bit of satisfaction from watching UNOgate unfold.

As you must know by now, the charter school empire known as UNO has been under the gun since February, when Dan Mihalopoulos, ace investigative reporter for the Sun-Times, broke the news that they'd awarded millions of dollars of construction contracts to companies owned by various brothers of UNO's chief operating officer.

Uh-oh.

I should say the former chief operating officer—because once the shit hit the fan the fellow had to step down.

That was just the start, as all the rats abandoned the sinking ship. There have been stern editorials by the charter-loving Tribune. Mayor Emanuel—once a big-time supporter—won't be caught dead near Juan Rangel, UNO's embattled CEO. Governor Patrick Quinn—a former UNO supporter—suspended payments on a state contract UNO needs to build a new high school.

Just last week, Quinn restored the contract, but only after Rangel stepped down from UNO's board.

Of course, there's another way of looking at this thing. As in—what do you expect? It's a charter school.

I mean, as near as I can tell, Rangel's basically been accused of running a charter school network that plays outside the rules, at least in regards to contracting vendors. But that's the whole point of charters.

One of the key underlying assumptions of the charter school movement is that the old rules do not apply to them. I've previously written about how their supporters feel free to make any old unsubstantiated academic claims. They have other freedoms as well.

For instance, the regular unionized public schools in Chicago have residency requirements that compel teachers and principals to live in Chicago. Personally, I think it's a good idea. It's like channeling our tax dollars into the city.

But with most charters, employees can live where they want.

The real public schools are required to pay their teachers a relatively generous salary that's been negotiated by the union and overseen by collective bargaining agreement. Another good idea. The teachers—like firefighters and police—form the backbone of middle-class neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

The charters—at least the nonunion ones—are free to pay their teachers what they want and it's generally as much as 25 percent less than the real public schools. Which is why so many charter school teachers are looking to get a job in the real public schools, despite what the mayor's team is doing to them.

The real public schools are supposed to abide by a collective bargaining agreement that protects teachers from being cavalierly fired by power-hungry principals or central office bosses. Extra emphasis on the word "supposed."

Once again, it makes sense. Unless you want to convert teachers into patronage workers for the mayor's political machine.

But the nonunion charters are pretty much free to fire at will. In fact, Rangel fired a gym teacher after that teacher reported a "mock rape" in the boy's locker room, a story you can read about right here.

Finally, real public schools must follow a specific procedure for awarding contracts, including making sure that special attention is paid to hiring minority contractors.

That makes sense for all the obvious reasons.

Well, as we've learned, UNO felt free to dole out the dough to whoever they wanted. It sure didn't seem like anyone was watching.

After all, we only found out about the chief operating officer and his brothers because of Mr. Mihalopoulos. And as tenacious as Dan may be, he can't ride herd on all the charters in the system. Not at the pace Mayor Emanuel keeps creating them, anyway.

The charter supporters maintain they should be free of the regular rules so they can go about their mission of saving humanity, one child at a time. Even though the results show they're not really doing any better than the rule-abiding unionized schools.

So apparently the lesson of UNOgate is this . . .

It's OK for the charters to pay teachers substandard wages and fire them on a whim—so long as they don't let Dan Mihalopoulos catch them doling out contracts to the chief operating officer's brothers.

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