Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general has hired two investigative reporters, ramping up his office’s tools to oversee the district with whose leaders he has very publicly clashed.
Nicholas Schuler said Wednesday that his new performance analysis unit will examine system-wide issues at the country’s third-largest school district, expanding their focus from allegations of individual fraud, waste and mismanagement. He described it as part of a larger push to “further professionalize the office” that has included a new website, a Twitter handle and updates on investigations outside of a state-required annual report.
“Our office needs a better capability to carry out investigations to the next level,” Schuler said by telephone. “How big is this problem, how widespread is it, how long has it been going on?”
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool also has been trying to head off systemic problems at the district since he took office in July 2015, moving staff from many departments into the Office of Internal Audit and Compliance. That department, headed by longtime Claypool colleague Andrell Holloway, saw its budget balloon to $4.1 million after Holloway took over from about $1.1 million a year earlier.
The district has seen problems with its data. Early in Claypool’s tenure, CPS downgraded four years of its reported graduation rates after a WBEZ/Catalyst Chicago investigation showed they were artificially high.
Claypool and Schuler have also butted heads over access to information, with the IG airing his grievances in an unusually blunt manner during the public participation segment of December’s school board meeting. There, Schuler accused CPS officials of refusing his requests for information necessary for his investigation into “possible ethics violations” by the school system’s top attorney.
Asked about the new hires, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in an email that the district already shares “extensive data about academic performance, school quality and District operations so that educational experts, universities and the community can evaluate the District’s performance. … In that vein, we will carefully review any OIG suggestions.”
On Tuesday, Schuler said he did not add any new positions to his office despite requests for more funding to the cash-strapped Board of Education. Instead, he said he converted three investigator vacancies to free up the money so the new unit could find problems and research best practices for solving them.
“It was worth sacrificing the investigator spots to do this,” he said. “People who have data analysis skills, reporting skills, interviewing skills — the idea is they’ll be a force multiplier.”
The two veteran reporters Schuler has hired have worked for the Chicago Sun-Times. As of Tuesday, Rosalind Rossi will be a $95,000-a-year chief performance analyst, and Art Golab an $87,000-a-year senior performance analyst.
Rossi, most recently a Watchdog reporter focusing on O’Hare Airport, covered CPS for 19 of her 36 years at the newspaper, garnering national awards for her work.
“What was really intriguing to me was the idea of helping CPS improve, and not just write about it,” Rossi said. “CPS is one of the city’s most important and precious assets.”
She frequently teamed up with Golab, an expert data journalist, who led the research team at Crain’s Modern Healthcare magazine after taking a buyout from the Sun-Times in 2015.