Quazzo faces critics while colleagues rush to her defense

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Deborah Quazzo, board member at the CPS monthly board meeting. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

“Quit, Quazzo, quit,” protesters urged Chicago Board of Education member Deborah Quazzo on Tuesday, but Wednesday, the mayor’s appointed board and his hand-picked schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett rushed to her defense.

At the first Board of Education meeting since the Sun-Times revealed that district spending to five companies in which Quazzo has invested tripled since Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her, critics Wednesday addressed Quazzo directly.

“Ms. Quazzo, I am sure that you are a fine person,” said Norine Gutekanst, an organizer from the Chicago Teachers Union, which has asked Quazzo to resign. “But an investor who is heavily invested in education technology has no business making educational and financial decisions for Chicago students,” she said as the board secretary cut off her microphone. “This is another reason why we need an elected school board.”

Board president David Vitale was the first of Quazzo’s colleagues to defend her.

“Board member Quazzo has totally abided by all the ethical rules of this board as have all other board members,” he said. “Finally, she has stated that any profitability that comes from  any companies she has invested in will actually be given back to support the students of the Chicago Public Schools.”

Four more board members spoke passionately in support of her before the meeting ended. Only Carlos Azcoitia refrained, keeping his remarks to questions about agenda items.

“We fill out the same ethical forms you do, we’re held to the same standards and higher standards, because the likelihood of your being splashed across the paper with things that are incorrect are low,” said Mahalia Hines to a Local School Council member who criticized stricter ethical policies for LSC members than for board members.

Hines and Andrea Zopp appeared at Quazzo’s educational tech summit last spring at Arizona State University; Zopp paid her own way, but Hines’ airfare and hotel were covered by the summit, according to CPS.

So were Byrd-Bennett’s, who also spoke up.

“Mr. President, I don’t know how appropriate this is but I would like to thank Deborah Quazzo, board member, for two things, one for spending so much time in our schools, visiting our schools,” Byrd-Bennett said. Then she addressed Quazzo directly, thanking her for her “forward thinking” on what students need.

“My experience with you is as a woman of impeccable integrity, and I really regret that you unfortunately have to go through this kind of rigmarole,” Byrd-Bennett said.

Quazzo didn’t speak at all during the meeting, except to reply “yes” when asked about a motion to close the meeting. She did not return a message afterward seeking comment. She has declined to discuss the situation with the Sun-Times, citing the ongoing investigation by the CPS inspector general.

Appointed in June 2013 to the board after Penny Pritzker became U.S. commerce secretary, the millionaire venture capitalist has said she never hid any investments she made to companies providing online support in math, reading and writing, and ACT test prep.

CPS rules require her to disclose her financial interests in companies that had contracts with the board in the previous year. Those rules didn’t require her to reveal her interest in three other companies to which CPS has paid a combined $930,000 since July.

Quazzo has said she’ll donate profits from the companies — including from their possible sale — and already has given about $2,500 to Manierre Elementary School.

Emanuel has stood by Quazzo, saying the city is “lucky to have her.”

Absent from criticism was mayoral candidate and elected school board champion Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who instead spoke about a pending lawsuit against CPS filed on behalf of pregnant women, saying afterwards he already released a statement about Quazzo.


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