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School board member tries to put out fire caused by her investment conflict

Chicago Board of Education member Deborah Quazzo is trying to put out the political firestorm created by her investments in technology companies that sell millions of dollars in education software to Chicago Public Schools.

In a letter this week to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Quazzo offered to go above and beyond the steps she has already taken to publicly disclose her business investments and recuse herself from school board votes involving the five companies — by donating any and all profits to charity.

“While confident of the efforts I have made to be completely compliant and transparent, I do not want there to be any distraction from my mission or that of Chicago Public Schools,” Quazzo wrote.

“In order to eliminate any perception of conflict with my angel investment activities, I am committing as it relates to all of my company investments that do business with an K-12 school district in the United States, that any net earnings I might receive from any of these investment holdings during my tenure on the board and one year after my tenure ends will be contributed directly to philanthropic organizations [including individual schools] that support Chicago Public School students.”

In the letter, Quazzo pegged her “net earnings” from the five companies during her tenure on the Chicago Board of Education at just $2,654.40.

She made no apologies for the investments in what she called “young companies in which I have no control as my ownership averages 0.9 percent, with 2 percent being the highest.”

“Digital tools and curriculum in the hands of great teachers and school leaders can provide educators with powerful tools to enhance their professional lives,” she wrote.

“I have focused my professional work on supporting entrepreneurs [many of whom are former educators and innovators] as they look to develop products and services that can dramatically improve learning outcomes for students. I have made investments in a number of companies that I believe can and are having a real, positive impact.”

The letter never mentions the possibility of resigning from the school board. In fact, Quazzo calls the appointment “one of the great honors of my life . . . an incredible privilege and a responsibility that I and my fellow board members take deeply seriously.”

Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said Quazzo’s pledge to donate the profits does not go far enough.

“This is damage control. This is spin. This is public relations seeking to mitigate the fact that there has been either a clear conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict,” Garcia said.

“She should resign from the board. It is a stain on the Chicago Public Schools. She should understand that the view that people have is that people get appointed to the Board of Education because they’re in a position to make money and advance their business interests. Situations like this would not arise if we had an elected school board.”

Quazzo is a millionaire venture capitalist chosen by Emanuel to fill the school board vacancy created when Penny Pritzker was appointed U.S. Commerce Secretary.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that Quazzo has invested in five educational technology companies that have been paid about $3.8 million by CPS since 2010, $2.9 million of it since she joined the board in June 2013.

The CPS inspector general has opened an investigation. The Chicago Teachers Union has demanded Quazzo’s resignation and used the controversy as a rallying cry for an elected school board.

Earlier this week, Emanuel returned from a Christmas vacation in Chile to say that Quazzo has his “full support” and CPS is “lucky to have her,” even though CPS business with companies Quazzo has invested in tripled since he appointed her to the board.

“Deb has the public spiritedness and the commitment on education as well as public policy, but on education specifically, to serve and bring that energy and that passion to her role on the CPS board,” he said at a news conference on his first day back from vacation.

The following day, Garcia condemned the mayor for standing behind Quazzo and for tolerating what he called a blatant conflict of interest.

“It is outrageous and unethical to keep her on the school board while profits for her companies have tripled. . . . Mayor Emanuel sees education as a profit center for people with powerful connections,” he said.