Under interim Chicago Public Schools CEO Jesse Ruiz, CPS is pushing behind the scenes for the scandal-plagued United Neighborhood Organization to have a continued role in running the 16-school charter network it created.
Last year, the UNO Charter School Network — which has about 8,000 students across the city and gets more than $80 million a year in taxpayer funding — announced plans to cut ties at the end of this school year with the Hispanic community organization it’s been paying to manage the schools.
But since Ruiz took the reins at CPS in April, the district has sought to block the charter board’s plans to run its schools on its own instead of paying millions of dollars a year in management fees to UNO, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
In a letter to Ruiz, charter board head Richard Rodriguez said CPS officials have now told him “the pending transition of management services may not proceed” without approval from the Chicago Board of Education.
The records also show CPS has withheld approval of the charter operator’s plan to manage its schools pending an audit of the schools by Jack Elsey, the top official overseeing charter schools in Chicago.
The charter network, known as UCSN, has cooperated with the audit, providing records to CPS.
Still, in his letter to Ruiz, Rodriguez said the charter operator intends to “continue with the transition of services as planned, and UCSN is prepared to take the necessary steps to bring this process to a final conclusion.”
Rodriguez also wrote that the charter network rejected CPS’ urging that it keep using UNO in some capacity, saying a decision whether to rehire the community group “is a matter for UCSN alone.”
Sources close to the negotiations said Ruiz has pushed for UNO to get a one-year extension to its deal with the charter network, which provides much of the community group’s revenues.
On Wednesday, Ruiz denied doing so but made clear that he opposes a quick split between UNO and the charter schools.
“UCSN has unilaterally chosen to make major changes to its management structure without properly consulting its charter authorizer — CPS,” Ruiz said. “This is what we are addressing now.”
CPS officials approve charter schools that operate in the city and provide funding based primarily on the number of pupils they serve. As with the UNO schools, some other charter holders in Chicago have management agreements for others to run their schools. Other charter operators manage their own schools.
The UNO school-management deal with UCSN expires Friday. Rodriguez announced 10 months ago that the charter operator would not renew the contract.
On Wednesday, Rodriguez said UCSN “stands ready to assume all school-management responsibilities at the end of this week.”
Michael Forde, a lawyer for UNO, would not comment.
UNO and the charter network formed separate boards after a series of stories in the Sun-Times in 2013, which prompted the resignation of longtime leader Juan Rangel.
The stories revealed that UNO paid millions of dollars from a state school-construction grant to companies owned by brothers of Rangel’s top deputy, Miguel d’Escoto.
Rick Cerda replaced Rangel as UNO’s chief executive, and Rodriguez became head of the charter network.
Two months ago, the depth of the rift between the two groups became public in a letter from Cerda to David Vitale, chairman of the Chicago Board of Education. Cerda said the charter network owed UNO $3 million in fees and warned the deteriorating relationship could prompt UNO to sell buildings that house six of the charter schools.
Several Latino aldermen, including former UNO leader Daniel Solis (25th), sided with Cerda, calling on CPS to use its influence to keep UCSN from dropping UNO.
On June 5, the charter operator agreed to pay more than $1.6 million in disputed fees to UNO. Records show the payment was made “pursuant to the instruction of Jesse Ruiz.”