Fraud, waste, misconduct: Inspector General’s report details year of cases in Chicago schools

Chicago schools’ investigative office discovered a swim coach who pocketed nearly $30,000 in pool-rental fees, the district’s failure to collect nearly $2 million in pre-kindergarten payments, and school employees underreporting their income to obtain free preschool. And the office opened nearly 500 investigations into alleged sexual abuse.

The board of education’s Office of the Inspector General details those and other findings of waste and misdeeds in a 72-page report released Monday summing up last school year’s cases in Chicago Public Schools.

By far the largest portion of complaints, more than one-fifth, that the independent office received dealt with alleged sexual abuse. That may be because of heightened public awareness from stories in the Chicago Tribune detailing school-related sexual assaults, and the inspector general forming a specialized unit to deal with them. 

The report from the office of Nicholas Schuler details the district’s response to the findings, which included termination and debarment in some cases. 

“We take seriously our duty to hold accountable any individual who commits serious breaches of district policy or seeks to cause harm,” said a school district spokeswoman, Emily Bolton, in a statement.  “The district appreciates the Office of the Inspector General’s continued efforts to investigate wrongdoing as we work to ensure all employees and operations are held to the highest standards of integrity.”

Among the findings and numbers in the report:

  • The Inspector General received 2,175 complaints from July 1, 2018, through June 30, alleging misconduct, waste, fraud and financial mismanagement.  It investigated 37.6% of those allegations. The report noted that constraints on staff, time, and budget limited its capacity to investigate.
  • Of 42 categories of complaints, the largest — 21% — dealt with sexual allegations that ranged from sexual electronic communication to sexual acts. Other categories included mismanagement, residency, discourtesy, ethics, bullying, retaliation, fraud, and corporal punishment.
  • While the school district charges up to $4,400 annually for a half-day seat in preschool, and more than $14,600 for a full-day seat, hundreds of families including nearly 140 employees skirted paying fees. Investigators blamed application fraud, lax debt collection, mismanagement, and poor oversight of the private company that collects fees. The board is trying to collect on those debts. Employees face no discipline for failing to pay preschool fees.
  • A swim coach reaped nearly $30,000 in payments from three outside groups for the off-the-books rental of a school pool over three years. The principal and assistant principal knew, or should have known, about the arrangement, investigators believe. The coach previously had been disciplined for renting the pool at a discount.
  • At one unnamed school, investigators documented 257 instances in three years of an administrator classifying truant students under a “lost child” code in attendance rolls and artificially inflating the school’s attendance rates. Attendance is a closely watched metric at schools because it factors into campus ratings.
  • One unnamed charter network improperly obtained 113,935 lines of student data from a district employee, including mailing addresses, and used it for three years to try to recruit students. Illustrating the gaps in how the district and charter schools handle wrongdoing, the district employee was terminated and a “do not hire” flag was placed in the employee’s file, while seven charter employees who were involved were issued written reprimands. Two of the charter employees were later promoted. 
  • A central office staffer who was evaluating a $30 million bid for a nursing services contract accepted a stay in a vacation home owned by a local franchise president who was competing for the contract. The vendor did not win the bid — but ultimately received a different school district contract, the report said. The staffer has since resigned from Chicago Public Schools, while the franchise is still operating in the district. The school board is weighing whether to debar the franchise president and amend its ethics code to explicitly state that vendors are prohibited from giving gifts or payments to board members and employees. 
  • Investigators reviewed 140 allegations of teachers fraudulently claiming to live in Chicago. City residency is a requirement for district employment (with some exceptions for hard-to-staff positions). Some teachers were terminated and others are awaiting disciplinary action from the board.