Investigations

10 questions for the CPS Inspector General as he wades into the student sex abuse scandal

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
The school board passed Chicago Public Schools' 2018-19 budget at CPS headquarters on July 25, 2018.

In the past year, Chicago Board of Education Inspector General Nicholas Schuler has led investigations into improper admissions at selective enrollment programs and the rehiring of problem educators by charters and contract schools. But his office is poised to take on an even broader role: leading the investigative charge into student complaints of sexual misconduct by educators and staffers.

Last week, Schuler wrote a letter asking that the inspector general’s office take on the role, and, today, board President Frank Clark said he is recommending that the district “specifically empower” the OIG’s office when it comes to student victims. It is the latest in a swift series of policy changes, including spot background checks, districtwide training plans, and a $500,000 contract for former Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Maggie Hickey to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review. The changes come in response to a Chicago Tribune series that spotlighted widespread lapses in how schools—and CPS at large—report abuse cases to police and address predatory behavior of educators, coaches, vendors and volunteers.

Chalkbeat asked Schuler, 50, a former police officer and attorney, how he plans to tackle two Herculean assignments: current reviews of student complaints as well as a historic review of cases going back to 2000, a priority CPS announced for the first time today.

A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation with Schuler is below.

What resources is CPS going to give your office to do this work?

That’s the big question. This is all happening rapidly—this was done without a lot of brass tacks. In my initial conversations, (CPS officials) are saying they are promising us adequate resources, and I believe them when they say that. So that’s first: to figure out exactly what we need, what resources are required to do the job. They’ve asked us to do two big jobs here: what we asked for in a letter last week, and then the separate piece is for us to do a review back to 2000. That is a separate, independent ask. We’re going to need dedicated resources for each prong.

That is a huge ask going back to 2000. How many cases might that be?

I don’t know.  We haven’t had these sorts of discussions yet. We don’t know the cases they’ve had or the current workload. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but that is the linchpin: If we don’t have the resources to do the two jobs, they won’t be done properly.

How many people currently work in your office full-time? 19.

How many more people will you ask for? I’m hesitant to put a number on it, but if I’m going to be conservative, I’d say 10, or probably more, people. It’s investigators, some attorney support, they need to be specialized people, plus specialized training. We haven’t even had discussions on how full the caseload is, and we don’t have a full handle yet on the resources they’ve dedicated to it.

Of your 19 people, how many are investigators? 10. We have three people who are in the performance analysis unit, two administrators, and three attorneys.

Do you plan to start your investigations where CPS left off? Or will you use your existing hotline to start use new cases? Or both? The IG already has a hotline: Will we use that as a central place for people to call or will we set up a separate hotline? There are so many unanswered questions. The hard work of answering those questions is underway right now.

What is your sense of the role the union plays? What level of cooperation do you expect? Working with the union has not really ever been an issue in our investigations. It has not hindered our recommendations.

What is your next step? The immediate step is to figure out the exact resources we need, and then figure out if it will be one person’s job to oversee these investigations—probably a chief. We have to figure out the paperwork; once we have a handle on that we can start going out.

CPS is not the only institution that has grappled with these issues. What do you think we have learned in terms of handling them?  I’m not in a position to comment on any of this except that we are in process.

Why do you feel independence is so important here? Parents, families, people—they need to know that no one is turning a blind eye to sexual predators.

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.“

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here: