January 31, 2011; Source: Chicago Tribune | Two former Chicago Public Schools board presidents apparently used school system funds as charitable contributions to a number of Chicago charities, including some in which they were specifically involved. The timeframe in which they found charitable uses for taxpayer funds overlapped with the tenure of Arne Duncan as the school system's CEO. Duncan is now the U.S. education secretary.
Until 2009, the school board chief needed the approval of the rest of the board to make charitable contributions, but that year school board president Michael Scott was able to convince the board to give him complete autonomy. Until he committed suicide in November of that year, freed from the need to seek board approval, his pace of charitable contributions increased. Charities he ran – or he or his wife served on the board – got $220,000 in contributions, according to an inspector general's report. He gave $77,500 to a West Side church whose pastor had partnered with him on a real estate development scheme tied to the city's unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics.
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Days after Scott's death, the board reinstated a policy of requiring board approval of charitable contributions above $1,000. The Chicago Tribune's analysis is that $525,000 in school board moneys went to charities associated with Scott or the other school board president, Rufus Williams. Williams defended the contributions, saying that "CPS cannot do it all . . .They have to rely on their partners in the community." Apparently he is referring to donations to youth charities: $53,400 to the Chicago Urban League, $24,000 to the Better Boys Foundation, $14,500 to the Sinai Community Institute, $24,900 to After School Matters – all with Scott on their board. Ten thousand dollars went to Mujeres Latinas en Accion where Scott's wife sat on the board.
Additional contributions went for seats at fundraising dinners for the Anti-Defamation League and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Interestingly, the inspector general's report missed several contributions that the Tribune uncovered, suggesting that the school system's charitable gift record-keeping might have been a little shoddy. Wouldn't it be better for the school system to contract for youth services rather than simply handing out gifts, to avoid conflicts of interest when school board members are connected to the recipient charities and churches, and to limit if not shut down the ability of any board member to hand out charitable gifts on his or her own recognizance without board oversight and approval? Maybe the Chicago Public Schools shouldn't be charitable grantmakers at all since their charitable largesse comes from taxpayer dollars.—Rick Cohen