Chicago Public Schools watchdog to investigate emergency computer deal with Lightfoot donor

Exterior of the Meeting Tomorrow building.
Meeting Tomorrow building. Chicago. Photo by Madison Hopkins/BGA. (Madison Hopkins/BGA)

The Chicago Public Schools’ in-house watchdog is reviewing a $1.6 million deal to buy used computers from a campaign donor to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who personally vouched for the company’s CEO as he sought to provide devices to the district last spring. 

The district’s Office of Inspector General opened the investigation after a report by Chalkbeat Chicago and the Better Government Association this week raised questions about the purchase. 

The district bought laptops and older-model tablets from Meeting Tomorrow last spring as part of a larger push to quickly get devices into the hands of students who needed them for remote learning amid national computer shortages. The company’s CEO, who had contributed $30,000 to Lightfoot’s 2019 election bid, reached out to her office, which forwarded his email to the district. Lightfoot also wrote schools chief Janice Jackson to put in a good word. 

Some of the computers did not meet the district’s technical standards, and a small number were not equipped for virtual learning. About a third have remained in a district warehouse even as the district has since bought more devices from its established vendors. 

District officials said Meeting Tomorrow was the only local vendor with readily available computers at a time when the district faced an urgent need to help low-income students access remote learning. They said the vast majority of devices were well equipped for that purpose.

The inspector general’s office will look into how the sale came about and whether the district got a reasonable deal during a challenging time to secure computers for students, Inspector General Will Fletcher said. 

“We want to determine whether the prices were fair and whether CPS appropriately evaluated its need for devices and the opportunity to purchase them from Meeting Tomorrow,” Fletcher said.  

He said the investigation might take several months. 

Earlier this week, Lightfoot said she forwarded the note from Meeting Tomorrow President Mark Aistrope at a time when “everybody and their brother” were approaching her office with offers to help with the city’s coronavirus response. She said she had simply wanted to steer the offer to the right people.

“He reached out and said ‘Hey, I know that CPS is struggling to find devices; can I be helpful?’ So I passed on that email,” she said when asked about the Chalkbeat/BGA report after an event to administer the city’s first coronavirus vaccines to healthcare workers. 

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“I have no regrets about forwarding that information on,” she added.

Lightfoot said she assumes the district properly vetted the purchase.

Kiannah Sepeda-Miller of the Better Government Association contributed to this report.

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