Inside Bruce Rauner’s charter schools

Written By By TIM NOVAK AND CHRIS FUSCO Staff Reporters Posted: 02/04/2014, 12:24pm
Array GRAPHIC: Profile of Noble Network Charter Schools

On TV, Bruce Rauner has barraged voters with a commercial in which he boasts that he “helped start charter schools” to fight failing educational programs.

Other than giving millions of dollars, though, the Republican candidate for governor doesn’t have much to do with running the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which includes a school that bears his name, according to the head of Noble.

Rauner has “very little” involvement in running Noble’s 14 high schools, which include Rauner College Prep on the near West Side and one middle school, says Michael Milkie, the former Chicago Public Schools math teacher who founded Noble and is now its superintendent and chief executive officer.

Rauner, a venture capitalist and member of Noble’s 20-member board, says: “I’ve never had a role in day-to-day operations at Noble or, frankly, in almost anything I get involved with. My role is generally as a board member or kind of an adviser providing overall strategic advice or feedback. . . . I go to the campus that they named after our family once a year, maybe twice a year, to talk to students and the principal, things like that.”

Like all charter schools, Noble’s are privately operated but financed largely by tax dollars, with some private donations. It is one of the largest and oldest charter operations in Chicago.

Rauner has given about $2.5 million to Noble, which has 8,850 students, 98 percent of whom are minorities and 89 percent who come from low-income families.

His family foundation has also given about $4 million to other organizations that operate or support charter schools.

Noble names schools after donors who have given at least $1 million. None of those donors holds sway, though, over the schools that bear their names, Milkie says.

“They can’t decide the curriculum or change the principal or change the sports that are played,” he says.

In his commercial, filmed at Noble’s Chicago Bulls Prep, Rauner says, “There’s no excuse for failing schools. Zero. None. Period. I got so fed up I helped start charter schools like this one.”

In Chicago, more than 57,000 kids — roughly 14 percent of CPS’ approximately 400,000 students — attend charter or contract schools, which also are privately run.

Here’s a rundown of the Noble schools:

◆ Noble has 526 full-time teachers making an average salary of $56,154 a year — about $14,000 less than the average pay for a CPS teacher. Rauner Prep has Noble’s highest- and lowest-paid teachers, with salaries ranging from $28,494 to $72,113. Noble teachers can get a 10 percent bonus based on student performance.

◆ Though Noble teachers make less than those at CPS, Milkie makes nearly as much as Chicago schools chief executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is paid $250,000. During the 2011-12 school year, Milkie’s salary was $215,520, including a $20,000 bonus, overseeing 6,645 students at 11 schools.

◆ Noble says 33 percent of its students who have gone on to college have earned degrees within six years. Noble says 90 percent of its students enroll in college.

◆ Noble students’ scores on the ACT college-entrance exam and the Prairie State Achievement Tests lag behind all CPS selective-enrollment high schools, including Northside Prep, Whitney Young and Walter Payton, but they outperform most CPS students. Noble had an average ACT score of 20.5 last year, while the overall CPS average was 17.6.

◆ Noble took in $106.8 million last year. That includes $82.1 million from city and state taxpayers, $9 million in federal taxes and $9.5 million in private donations.

◆ The state of Illinois has helped Noble borrow $42 million by issuing bonds, which could cost the school $85 million in principal and interest by the due date of 2040, bond records show. The bonds are repaid with taxes. Noble also borrowed $13 million through a tax-credit financing program.

◆ Noble has a long relationship with attorney Gery Chico, dating to 1998, when Chico was president of the Chicago Board of Education — which gave Milkie permission to start Noble. After leaving the school board, Chico and his law firm were paid $239,363 by Noble for legal work in the 2009-10 school year. Chico’s firm has continued to work for Noble since he was appointed chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education by Gov. Pat Quinn in May 2011.

“Since being appointed to my position in May of 2011, my firm, and not I, has done a minimal amount of legal work for Noble Charter Schools on carryover matters from earlier representation totally unrelated to any subject that involves ISBE,” says Chico, a onetime mayoral candidate who once worked for former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th).

Rauner says he didn’t know Chico had worked for Noble.

◆ Noble spent $5.4 million on rent and upkeep last year for its schools. That includes $1 million for Muchin College Prep’s classrooms in the heart of the Loop at State and Madison; $850,833 paid to the Archdiocese of Chicago for using four former Catholic elementary schools that Noble converted to high schools, among them Rauner Prep, and $1.8 million for three of the five schools it leased from the Chicago Board of Education. The other two schools rented from CPS just opened this year, which helped bring Noble’s enrollment up to 8,850 students.

Last month, the Chicago School Board gave Noble permission to open two new high schools in the fall. Noble wants to open nine more schools by 2018.

Contributing: Art Golab

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