James Sullivan will resign as Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general at the end of this month, after 12 years of work that put him on the trail of two school board presidents, a future Chicago Bulls star and a future candidate for governor.
To this day, Sullivan pauses and turns quiet when asked about one of those probes — of then-School Board President Michael Scott, who shot himself in the head five days before Sullivan was scheduled to interview him.
Sullivan said he heard the news of Scott’s death on a Monday morning at home, while his wife was making school lunches for their three children. He was stunned.
Word later emerged that Scott was supposed to talk to a top mayoral aide about Sullivan’s inquiry on the same day Scott’s body was found in the Chicago River: Nov. 16, 2009.
“It bothered me. I thought about it literally every day for quite a long time,” Sullivan said.
But Sullivan said his investigation of Scott’s spending on the taxpayer dime proves the CPS Inspector General’s Office is independent of the Chicago Board of Education. So did work accusing Scott’s predecessor, School Board President Rufus Williams, of charging the public for, among other things, holiday parties at his home, he said.
In fact, Sullivan said, over the last 12 years he also never got a call from former Mayor Richard M. Daley or current Mayor Rahm Emanuel — or their aides — about a probe. And that’s the way it should be, he said.
“Nobody tells us what to do,’’ Sullivan said. “We call things as we see them.”
And that’s what any successor Emanuel will now appoint should do, Sullivan told the Chicago Sun-Times. The appointment requires no City Council approval.
Sullivan, who earns $133,000, will join Sikich LLP, a professional services firm, to do fraud investigations.
The top reason he’s retiring when his four-year term expires June 30? The lifelong South Sider, 54, has three kids starting college between now and 2017.
From his spartan office, with worn carpeting and barren white walls a mile from School Board headquarters, Sullivan directed one probe on an issue that affects thousands of parents every year. He looked into the system’s admission process for highly coveted selective-enrollment high schools and found “clout” was playing a role.
A top aide to Arne Duncan — who was then the Chicago Schools CEO and is now the U.S. secretary of education — even kept a log of calls he fielded about would-be admissions from politicians and others, including current gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.
After that call from Rauner in 2008, the aide called the principal of Payton College Prep, who then admitted Rauner’s daughter — even though her scores didn’t meet Payton admission standards that year, and even though the “principal pick” process had not started, Sullivan said.
At the time, Sullivan had no clue that Rauner would today be the GOP candidate for governor and the Payton admission would be raised by opponents.
But after the clout probe, the Board of Ed tightened its rules for the “picks” principals can make outside the heavily test-based admissions process and “hopefully made the process more fair,’’ Sullivan said.
Sullivan also found evidence of grade-changing at Farragut and Simeon High Schools. The Simeon probe indicated grades were boosted for Derrick Rose — now with the Chicago Bulls — and three other Simeon basketball players long enough to improve transcripts sent to colleges, Sullivan said. Then, he said, they were changed back.
Over the years, Sullivan has lifted the lid on inflated grades, graduation rates, attendance rates and free or reduced lunch counts — something that brings schools funding.
And, he warned, the increasing importance placed on data only gives schools and employees an incentive “to alter it for their personal benefit.’’ Meanwhile, Sullivan said, CPS employees he investigates seem to be more worried about how the data look than how to use it to help students improve.
As the longest-serving of three CPS inspectors general to date, Sullivan is probably the IG watchdog with the biggest bite. He figures he caused or contributed to the resignations of “hundreds” of Chicago Board of Education employees.
But he also helped win dismissal of charges against a principal accused of filing a false police report, he said. Sullivan said his work showed the principal was merely passing on a tip that a student in her school had a gun, and police had overreacted in their response.
Other sensitive probes are percolating. Last December, Catalyst Chicago reported that the CPS inspector general is investigating a $20 million principal professional development contract with the SUPES Academy, where Schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett once worked. The contract was CPS’ largest no-bid deal in at least five years, Catalyst said. Sullivan would confirm only that his office is investigating the SUPES contract.
As he prepares to walk out the door, Sullivan said his office deserves a bigger budget. It has one investigator for every 2,356 employees it could investigate, compared to a 1-to-455 ratio for the city inspector general and a 1-to-1,129 ratio in Cook County.
And, he said, his replacement should be familiar with the CPS inspector general’s office, in order to maximize the office’s momentum.
“Chicago Public Schools is a huge organization,’’ Sullivan said. “The seriousness of the things we investigate are getting bigger. The more you learn about it, the more you learn where CPS is susceptible to fraud.’’