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Garcia accuses Emanuel of treating education ‘as a profit center for people with powerful connections’

Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday for refusing to dump a school board member who has invested in technology companies that sell millions of dollars in education software to the Chicago Public Schools.

Emanuel said this week that Deborah Quazzo has his “full support” and CPS is “lucky to have her,” even though CPS business with companies Quazzo has invested in tripled since the mayor appointed her to the school board after Penny Pritzker was appointed U.S. commerce secretary.

On Tuesday, Garcia ripped the mayor for standing behind Quazzo and for tolerating what he called a blatant conflict of interest, saying it’s “outrageous and unethical” to let her remain on the board.

“Mayor Emanuel sees education as a profit center for people with powerful connections,” Garcia said in a statement. “The ‘business’ of education is providing high-quality learning for our children — not opening the door for a corporate raid. I know we need a strong business sector for our city to thrive. I also know that education is about students, teachers and their families. It is about building a better future.”

Emanuel says Quazzo should remain on Board of Ed despite financial interests
CPS inspector general opens investigation of board member’s investments

Garcia has argued Chicagoans have a “constitutional right” to elect their school board members, vowing to make it happen one way or another — even if it takes a trip to federal court.

Garcia portrayed Quazzo as a poster child for why Chicago needs an elected school board, which Emanuel opposes for fear it would further politicize the schools.

“This is a moment of truth for Chicago voters to see what really matters to Mayor Emanuel,” Garcia said. “Mayor Emanuel has promised to roll out his education policy during the course of the campaign. If this is a preview, every parent and child in the city should be deeply worried.”

Willie Wilson, a Chicago businessman and philanthropist who just put $1 million of his own money into his campaign to oust Emanuel, also called for an elected school board on Tuesday as well as an “independent prosecutor” to look into problems at CPS.

“I have repeatedly called for an elected school board that has fidelity to the communities, not the machine,” Wilson said in a statement. “There is a trail of corruption and cronyism that even a school child can follow. It is time for new leadership that represents the communities, not the contract elite, not slick businessmen who know how to load a contract or pad a board.”

The mayor has refused to answer questions about when he learned about Quazzo’s business interests in companies doing business with Chicago Public Schools. Quazzo, a millionaire venture capitalist, 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 June 2013, when she replaced Pritzker.

“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,” the mayor said earlier this week.

“Deb says she’ll answer any questions, the [inspector general is] going to look into it. I’m pleased that she’s volunteered her time to serve, and she’s going to continue to do it,” Emanuel said of Quazzo, who donated $5,000 to his 2011 mayoral campaign.

He left as a reporter asked why he didn’t see any conflict of interest.

Quazzo has said she hasn’t tried to hide her involvement and sees no conflict of interest because she has recused herself from any board votes regarding the companies. She has continued to invest, saying, “It’s my belief I need to invest in companies and philanthropic organizations who improve outcomes for children.”

Several times since Quazzo took office, one of her companies cut prices so its bills to CPS fell just below the $25,000 threshold that would require approval by CPS officials.

Academic Approach, which offers ACT preparation help, gave Corliss High School a 2.21 percent discount on $25,565 worth of services, cutting its bill to $24,999 — $1 shy of needing central office approval. The company also sent bills just under $25,000 to three other CPS schools.

In the wake of the Sun-Times story, CPS’ inspector general opened an investigation.

The Chicago Teachers Union and Ald. Bob Fioretti, another mayoral challenger, also have demanded Quazzo’s resignation and used the controversy as a rallying cry for an elected school board.

A coalition of community groups has submitted petitions bearing thousands of signatures that, the CTU contends, will give voters in 38 wards the opportunity to vote Feb. 24 on the non-binding referendum question.

Chicago has the only school district in the state that does not have an elected school board. Instead, the board is composed of seven mayoral appointees confirmed by the City Council.

Only the Legislature could make the switch to an elected school board. But an overwhelming vote in favor of the referendum could give momentum to the grass-roots movement by parents groups angered by painful budget cuts, nearly 50 school closings and four straight years of up-to-the-limit property tax hikes by Emanuel’s hand-picked board.